Phone: (09) 623 3140
Cost: $359 for four
Rating: 14 — Good
There is a menu, but you don't need to read it. Gaetano Spinosa will tell you what's best, what you should order and, when your food arrives, he may even lean in and cut it up for you.
"It's all coming back to me now," said my dining companion.
Remember O'Sarracino, the Symonds St restaurant where Spinosa would sort of pretend to listen to what you wanted, mutter something about something, and then return with platter after platter of squid, olives and eggplant that you were almost certain you hadn't asked for? You ate with a kind of joyous abandon and you drank because you were a bit nervous about the bill.
The charismatic Spinosa's latest venture is Monzu, in the space that was, most recently, Meredith's. The latter's most distinctive fine-dining aesthetics (those strangely formal white-painted twig things and that dark panelling) remain. I'm not convinced this is a good thing.
I went to Monzu looking for exuberance and excess but what I got was an odd restraint. It's a cliche to associate Italian food with cheerful charm, but there was a disconnect between the formal service (Spinosa admirably excepted), the austerity of the room, and a menu packed with references to childhood memories and mamma's recipes.
Take the antipasti. It arrived as individually portioned plates. Forks up, heads down, repeat. I missed the passing (and grabbing) I've come to associate with this pre-course.
Viewed from above, our $16 plates were dollopy little islands of vegetables, fresh mozzarella, and deep-fried things. Divinely soft tangles of capsicum and aubergine melted like an oily tongue kiss; zucchini, celery and cucumber provided contrast (and also our only green hit — there are vegetarian dishes available but no explicitly leafy sides or salads).
The mozzarella needed longer out of the fridge to loosen into its textural glory but, overall, it was a tasty start.
In the early 19th century, a "monzu" was a master chef, an honorific given to a handful of men who first cooked for the King of Naples. Monzu the restaurant includes moments of royal indulgence — a white truffle cream, fresh lobster tail — but "rustic" is the overriding theme of the food.
On the weekends, diners give themselves over to the kitchen. Order a la carte Tuesdays to Thursdays, but, honestly, you might as well close your eyes and point at the page.
Consider the Uova in Purgatorio ($30). According to the written menu it is "impossible to describe … you must try and you go to heaven". The Spaghetti Puveriell ($29), is simply "Monzu Gaetano's mother's recipe … from my childhood memory".
We ordered that hellish egg, and it was charming — rich chunks of slow-cooked beef in a tomato sauce that represented the devil's domain with an egg that you break to begin your ascent to the angel's.
I had the spaghetti of childhood memory, which you might mistake as a kind of DIY carbonara if you hadn't hit the Google translate button and found a recipe with instructions to "lay down the eggs cooked in a cow's eye".
Fortunately, Spinosa appeared tableside to explain his version, where the pasta is cooked in water infused with a little fat, a lot of parmigiano rind and no eyeballs. When he leaned over to dredge the soft egg yolk through the cheesy spaghetti ("like my mother did"), the smell was amazing even if the taste was a touch salty for me.
My friend with the crayfish tail and fresh pappardelle ($34) won the night. She, too, was assisted by Spinosa, who helpfully deshelled the crustacean. It was really good, with bursts of cherry tomato and a background bottarga-driven fishiness.
I was sad for the man with the "fresh pasta with homemade fennel and pork sausage with white truffle cream ($29)". It read so beautifully, but the little plugs of extruded sausage were visually off-putting, and the promised casarecce pasta (which usually looks like a loose ringlet) was a spiral perm, circa 1986.
Dessert de Monzu ($15) was interpreted as a sweet version of our antipasto starter — individual plates, plopped with portions of rum baba, choux buns, tiramisu and more. Not too heavy and just the right amount of sweet, but quite a lot to get through. I would have happily shared.