Monday, August 8, 2011

Alio: An offer I couldn't refuse

Last month, or peak birthday season as I call it, I was sent an early birthday card from the marketing sorts at Alio; a modern Italian restaurant in the Redfern end of Surry Hills that I’d often passed but never entered despite intentions.

Offering me their seasonal degustation menu as a birthday present (complimentary with at least another full-paying diner), it was too good an offer to refuse. Blowing in from the wind, we find ourselves seated at the spacious but quiet bar for cocktails before the meal.

Hand made grissini from Alio, Baptist Street, Surry Hills
Known for a monthly changing degustation menu, Alio has a simple, relaxed feel that probably reflects its particular end of Surry Hills, if not its years of opening. In business for an admirable 10 years, Alio attracts several tables for two this blustery Wednesday evening, as well as a large family birthday.

With matching wines to our 10-course degustation, the first three courses arrived in a flurry following the rather celebratory Chrismont Brut Reserve Sparkling from Victoria’s King Valley.

Hand-made grissini could hardly be called a course, but it was served with a gorgeous, pillowy rosemary focaccia, marinated organic olives and some seriously good nubs of 40-month old Reggiano Parmigiano cheese that’s excitingly refined.

Potato and celeriac soup
Along with the first plate comes a teacup of potato and celeriac soup, which is surprisingly full-bodied, creamy – worth licking out the bottom of the cup.

Baked eggplant with buffalo mozzarella, basil and tomato salsa
The eggplant dish is an impressive improvement to a classic insalata caprese, entirely appropriate for the cooler weather. The thin, baked slice of eggplant was soft and creamy in texture with the skin baked to a crisp. It contrasted beautifully against the chewy stringiness of the melting mozzarella, which seemed to act as the feature protein.

Served with (I think) a 25-year-old balsamic vinegar, oil-doused tomato salsa, chives and baby basil leaves, we could definitely have gone another three of these each; so well-balanced and scrumptious they were.

The Mas Donis Rosat Montsant from Spain came with an explanation from the sommelier and matched exceedingly well; a deep pink rose of sweet floral top notes followed with a pleasantly dry finish.

Salmon gravlax with crostini and crème fraiche
The ‘pretty as a contemporary art picture’ salmon gravlax was dressed with zigzags of mustard dressing and a quenelle of crème fraiche. The piled-up salad consisted of snow pea sprouts, pickled cucumber and lots of dill – three flavours that partnered remarkably well with the raw salmon.

The deafeningly crunchy crostini was the perfect carrier for the thin, orange slices of fish, which had just a touch of fishiness towards the end of the dish, which was easy to ignore with more crème fraiche with each bite.

The crisp yet complex house white wine from Cheshunt, Victoria again matched well though arrived sans explanation or tasting notes (as did the rest of the wines for the evening).

Pan fried salami with wet polenta and herb butter
The next dish sounded unusual on the menu and indeed looked that way when it arrived too. Paper thin slices of spicy salami, pan fried to a crisp edge, were served atop a large dollop of polenta with crispy sage leaves.

While the subdued, grainy polenta offset the flavour-packed salami rounds, it felt a little like a collision of a side dish and an antipasti rather than a dish proper. This was served with a gorgeous Corte Giara Pinot Grigio from Venice.

Potato gnocchi with braised ox tail and parmesan
To the meaty end of the meal, we started on meltingly soft yet slightly weighty potato gnocchi with a hearty sauce of stewed ox tail. Luckily a small serve and freshened up with chopped parsley, this dish was downed with the sprightly, berry-noted Navarro Lopez Tempranillo Tierracalar from Spain.

Lamb shoulder, slow cooked for 12 hours, with pea mash
The final savoury dish immediately reminded me of a Harry’s Café de Wheels Tiger (that would have been the peas and gravy) and it wasn’t difficult to dive straight in. The pea mash swam in the rich, velvety gravy from the lamb shoulder, which was fall-apart tender and simply blissful.

This was served with my favourite matched wine of the night: the Little Demon Cabernet Merlot from South Australia’s McLaren Vale which held its own against the robust lamb dish.

Mandarin sorbet
Eight savoury dishes later, I wasn’t as stuffed as I thought I might be, thanks to the petite serving sizes. I also wasn’t anywhere nearing tipsy as less-than-half-glasses of the matched wines were served (albeit in normal-sized glasses).

There were to be two dessert wines; the first – a pretty, saccharine Stella Bella Pink Muscat from Western Australia’s Margaret River – served alongside the in-house made mandarin sorbet, which was spot on and reminded me a little of these mandarin jelly lollies I used to be addicted to.

Caramelised lemon tart with lemon ice cream
The final dessert was rather on the large side, if not one of the biggest dishes of the night. The lemon tart featured a caramelised, brûlée-like hardened top, tangy lemon curd and the shortest pastry I think I’ve ever had.

In all, it was a little pedestrian but was lifted by the creamy lemon ice cream. The lightly fizzy Grani di Sole Moscato di’Asti from Mombaruzzo, Italy was a fun note to end on – sweet enough to combat both the tart and ice cream.

So, ten courses, eight wines and 27 years down, it was a relatively quiet birthday celebration this year, centred on three dinners and a lunch, a fair bit of wine – and not to forget a voucher for some pretty new shoes. That’s a combined offer I certainly cannot refuse.

Alio on Urbanspoon

16 comments:

lateraleating said...

I'd like to get that kind of birthday calls once in a while! I'm kinda disappointed by the looks of the food, I thought dishes would be fancier.

Joseph said...

Yum. That lamb looks delicious. Is that rosemary battered??

Corinne @ Gourmantic said...

We got that birthday card invitation as well but couldn't make it this time.

We'd been to Alio before for a dego with wine matching. We enjoyed the food but unfortunately the (lack of) service ruined it for us.

"...arrived sans explanation or tasting notes (as did the rest of the wines for the evening)." - same here, and in most cases, the wines were unannounced.

Dumpling Girl said...

Happy belated birthday, Tina. What a nice looking birthday treat. The baked eggplant looks so good.

MissPiggy said...

Awww, what a lovely birthday treat. Often see this place and wonder what it's like. Looks pretty nice...

missklicious said...

What a fantastic offer!

minibites said...

ooo yum! I just bought a voucher for this restaurant for 2 courses, I may have to extend our dishes.... haha

Vivian - vxdollface said...

The boy was given a degustation voucher for Alio too! We have still yet to book in to dine ^^" I hope eggplant is still on the menu when we go because it sounds absolutely divine! lol and wet polenta just sounds wrong.

chopinandmysaucepan said...

The braised oxtail is right up my alley! Happy belated Tina!

Tina said...

Hi lateraleating - Yeah, it wasn't quite what I expected either.

Hi Joseph - It sure is (I forgot to mention). Amazing addition to the dish!

Hi Corinne - Shame isn't it, when the place could be so much more...

Hi Dumpling Girl - The eggplant dish was my fave!

Hi MissPiggy - Yes, it was a lovely treat from Alio :)

Hi missklicious - Sure was!

Hi minibites - Yes, there are SO many vouchers going around now..!

Hi Vivian - This was the July degustation, so I'm not sure how much the menu will have changed.

Hi chopinandmysaucepan - Yes! I could have done with a triple serve of that ox tail!

Alison Wood said...

Reading your post is literally jaw-dropping. You're like the luckiest person alive being offered by that birthday treat from Alio!

Just by merely looking at the potato and celeriac soup, pan fried salami and caramelised lemon tart among others, I absolutely think you had a fabulous birthday. It doesn't matter if it's quiet as long as you're having the 10 course meal, lol.

Keely aka The Richest Girl in Bondi said...

Each dish looks delish (though I admit I'd probably like the portions to be a bit bigger). Looks like it was a great deal though .. might have to try it!

mademoiselle délicieuse said...

Haha, so a birthday blessed with - ahem - food, booze and shoes then? =p

Tina said...

Hi Alison - Actually, I think everyone on their mailing list gets the b'day offer... ;)

Hi Keely - Oh no, I could barely handle the last of the lemon tart - definitely no bigger dishes for me!

Hi mademoiselle délicieuse - But of course!

Forager @ The Gourmet Forager said...

A happy belated birthday to you! Haven't been back to Alio in a while - but it still looks good!

Tina said...

Hi Forager - Thanks. They seem to be doing a lot of those voucher deals, so keep an eye out :)

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