It was no surprise to read that most of the Town Hall Hotel’s reviews by urbanspoon contributors confirmed that service was an issue. This was my biggest grievance too. Although our party of five were promptly seated, food and wine menus were quickly delivered and pre-dinner drinks orders were taken. Almost comically, immediately after our first server had left the table, a second server appeared and launched into the same process, not even noticing that we had already received our food and wine menus.
Service continued to become a little more problematic when three or four different staff became engaged with servicing our table throughout the evening. We asked one staff member, whom I believe was an owner, for more bread and a couple of drinks. Neither made it to our table. On two other occasions we unsuccessfully ordered drinks that only arrived after further prompting. I’m not too sure if the THH have a game plan per se as to who does what – it definitely did not appear so and the four staff members that were ‘literally’ running around were indeed quite inefficient for the modest-sized dining room. However, what the ‘actual’ waiting staff lacked in efficiency, they gained big ticks for friendliness, courtesy and knowledge. This did not apply to the gentleman whom I believe was an owner; he came across as a little surly and unaccommodating.
OK… Enough bitching about the service. We were there for the food. The dishes are Italian classics that have been refined and restrained. The menu is divided into ‘Cicchetti’ or small snacks to share, cheese, small plates, medium plates, large plates, steaks, sides and desserts.
Upon reading the menu, one may become a little confused about the differences between say, Cicchetti, small plates and medium plates, however in our case, this was well elucidated by the server and of course, the price per dish does go a long way to determine what will satiate your immediate hunger without ruining it before receiving your main course.
The winners on the Cicchetti menu were the moreish tallegio and pancetta-filled dates and the generous slabs of chorizo, pan fried with grapes. The crab kataifi with chive butter was also declared a winner. My partner was a little under whelmed with her choice from the small plates menu; Buffalo mozzarella over an Italian slaw with a cabernet vinegar reduction. The slaw was reported as a little dry and under-dressed.
I opted for a special on the night; Vitello Tonnato. Slivers of poached veal were alternated with slices of precisely seared tuna and anointed with a perfect Tonnato dressing with lots of tuna-y punch. If I can be a little picky, which I can because it’s my review, the veal was a tad on the tough side. It wasn’t as much as tough as it was surprisingly unyielding as poached veal should be. The plate also lacked some freshness and some dressed peppery rocket leaves would have been ideal.
Pieces of good quality, presumably house made ciabatta with olive oil were served, albeit a meagre serve and hence our request for some more… which as already mentioned, was not forthcoming.
For mains, the roasted baby snapper fillet over a seafood paella and lemon was declared a hit, as was the roasted pepper duck breast with confit leg, sweet potato mash and lime jus. Osso Buco was a featured special on the night and was also declared a rib-sticking success, with the exception of an disappointing Osso Buco to potato mash ratio (i.e. not enough mash)… but that might have been borne out of my fellow diner’s love of and pure greed for mash as opposed to a scant portion.
My partner was clearly having a crap night, based on her menu choices. She opted for the 250g grain fed eye fillet, cooked to medium. The meat varied in doneness (medium to medium-rare) throughout the piece of beef, which was a little strange given it was of an even size and a relatively small cut. One inexcusable flaw however was the absence of seasoning, for which I can attest after tasting the beef. The accompanying potato gratin, macerated onion and red wine jus were adequate.
There’s an Italian saying, “Brutti ma Buoni”, which means “Ugly but good”. This to me is how my off-menu choice of bollito misto can be summed up in a nutshell; a big fat Italian meat orgy. I was a little unsure as to how this would be presented, given that the menu was so far very consistent in its approach to presenting classic Italian dishes in a modern, refined and restrained way. Everything bollito misto traditionally contradicts.
Fortunately, Chef Harry Lilai has succeeded on every level with this dish. It remains refined and restrained, but not to the detriment of the protein-driven heartiness of this classic. The dish was presented with some slices of cotechino, a very dainty chicken leg and some pieces of veal rump and beef, all of which had been treated with love and respect. A couple of well turned carrots and onion also featured and several ladles of the fragrant and meaty, yet clean and clear cooking broth topped this very satisfying dish. The traditional condiments of a very good salsa verde, some finely chopped mustard fruits, Dijon mustard and some toasted croutons for some desired crunch and texture completed and complimented this, my favourite dish of 2011, so far.
We rounded out the night with a selection of biscotti and several of the cheeses on offer; a Taleggio, Pecorino and Gorgonzola, all served with fruit bread, quince paste, lavoche and muscatels.
The wine list is reasonably priced and extensive and there are also several decent beers on tap, including Asahi and Peroni. We drank the NV Stefano Lubiana Brut from Tasmania ($70), the 2007 d’Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz ($65) and we washed down our cheeses and biscotti with a 2008 d’Arenberg The Noble Mud Pie ($50 for 375ml).
In all, we were only lighter $125 per head (including tip) and in the majority of cases, duly content for it.
Service issues aside, the Town Hall Hotel is a great local that based on the more prominent media reviews (Gourmet Traveller, The Age) has been well received, is respected and damn! It’s also given me my favourite dish of the year to date… but it could be so much better than it is with a few refinements, in particular sorting out the service, which most urbanspoon contributors attest is the THH’s biggest liability.
Town Hall Hotel
166 Johnson Street, Fitzroy 3065
(03) 9416 5055
Good for: rustic Italian cuisine disguised as fine dining… or vice versa, a drink and ‘chichetti’ in the warming and comfortable bar
Not good for: primarily, its service