After a quirky, smile-provoking, slightly sweat-raising hour or so in The Famous Spiegeltent at Hyde Park for Sydney Festival's Smoke & Mirrors, I'm involuntarily underwhelmed as I fight the comparison with last year's La Clique. I know it wasn't intended as a replacement, but for a show of the same genre in the same venue at the same festival - comparisons are going to happen. I did enjoy the show, but felt it lacked the finesse and magnetism of La Clique - despite having bunnies in common.
Ringmaster iOTA was unparalleled in his shape-shifting story-telling with a voice like an angel or demon - depending on who or what the occasion required. Todd McKenney's stripping (strapping?) tap dancer was totally on the ball; Queenie van de Zandt's bearded lady was captivating; the ThisSideUp acrobatic posers in retro moustaches were a crowd favourite; Chelsea McGuffin was elegant whether on the trapeze or being thrown around like a rag doll; and Timothy Woon impressed by turning white doves into big white ducks.
On that note, the dinner decision was directed out of vicinity, and Stanley Street seemed a close yet seldom visited strip. The walk from Hyde Park was filled with commentary and recollection - of Ira and stories that maybe needn't be repeated, of wandering and jumping bunnies. The dining destination decision was made quickly, for normal dinner time and well and truly gone.
On one of the corners of Stanley Street is Giardinetto Restaurant, appearing reasonably cute, well-priced and Italian. Unfortunately, the key word there is 'appearing' as it certainly looks the part and is reasonably filled with mid-sized groups.
I've never been a big pate person - the texture of liver just gets me the wrong way. I've been told, however, that chicken pate would be considered the beginner's one and I admit that this one is fairly subtle and not bad. It comes with a jelly on top, a mixed leaf salad, two thin slices of gherkin, and what appears as a slice of lightly toasted sandwich bread (is it Helga's? I think so!) plus two extra batons of the bread. As Rove would have said: What the?!
The mussels looked a generous serve of the black shelled molluscs in a soup-y tomato-based sauce, and were quite pleasant by all accounts - the sauce soaked up by some more bread.
To mains, my salmon fillet was a colourful addition to the table with the array of vegetables quite appealing, if not awkwardly arranged. The sauce of oil and probably balsamic vinegar certainly wasn't visually appealing, but aided somewhat with the plainly steamed stems of cauliflower and broccoli, and single snow pea. Bones aside, the fish was cooked nicely if not a tad over and doing quite well with the dill and chat potato.
The penne was certainly not one of the most attractive pasta dishes I've ever seen, including those from my very own kitchen. I always like to hide my mess with a bunch of rocket too. Although the penne diner had no complaints, it was also deemed as nothing special - though it did come from the specials menu.
The fillet steak looked an absolute treat on arrival - thick and extremely well caramelised on the outside, balanced precariously on the familiar steamed cauliflower, snow pea and chat potato - despite the request for no potato. The jus looked rich and inviting, but when the steak turned out to be well done as opposed to a medium-rare, it was an utter disappointment that went back to whence it came.
Another main from the specials menu, the veal scallopini arrived with - surprise, surprise - steamed broccoli, cauliflower, snow pea and chat potatoes. I'm beginning to feel like I'm in a club bistro where you're lucky if the requisite side isn't out of a can, let alone different from dish to dish. The veal was declared tender and there were no complaints about the caper-dotted white sauce.
The disappointment on expectation killed the mood on desserts, not helped much by seeing a waitress procure Peter's vanilla ice-cream from the nearby convenience store. I have nothing against Peter's but have no inclination to pay restaurant prices for it.
A few requests and a few more minutes later, the bill came and was paid with haste. The homeward discussion (not before spying Luke Nguyen heading in the general direction of The Spiegeltent) was about the plethora of average, if not below, Italian restaurants compared to other cuisines, such as French. Perhaps Italian is just a bit easier to masquerade, while there seem to be many more in quantity as well. Either way, a restaurant that is more smoke and mirrors than good food does not a happy bunny make.