This restaurant is now closed.

Anything you’d like to buy these days, there’s a very good chance you can find a coupon for it. Coupon dining is a huge industry but one has to ask why restaurants, especially those that have been established for a long time, would go there. With that in mind, Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband wended their way to inner-city Carlton and to Esposito.

Maurice Esposito is a noted Italian chef with a considerable cooking pedigree in Melbourne and around the world. He is also behind a laneway fish restaurant in the heart of the city, St Peter’s trattoria. For nigh on seven years he has also held sway in Carlton, where the restaurant has had a number of guises – Toofey’s, Esposito at Toofey’s and, now, Cucina di Esposito.

When the deal popped into Greedy Girl’s inbox offering a five course prawn degustation for two at just A$79, she jumped at it. On an extremely hot night, we battled the meagre parking opportunities for non-residents and presented ourselves bright and early.

Having dined there during both previous incarnations (see the list of names above), the restaurant floor didn’t seem to be much different. White walls, a couple of dramatic works of art, starched linens and a gigantic modern chandelier dominate the room. There’s also a dining area upstairs that was not in service this particular evening. As a result, there was no air-con operating up there and a trip to the bathroom left Greedy Girl with the disorienting feeling she’d wandered into the oven by mistake. Ne’er mind.

The coupon entitled us to a glass of sparkling on arrival. Desperately in need of something cool, we happily tucked into a glass of Ruggeri Argeo prosecco from the Veneto region and awaited our food.

Opting not to add the matching wines (five 100ml pourings) for an extra A$38, feeling the extra alcohol on such a hot night might be a step too far, we sipped the prosecco (a nice drop, but Greedy Girl finds it hard to quaff Italian sparkling in quite the same way she drains champagne) and awaited the first course, a chilled gazpacho (or gazpacchio, according to the menu – well, we were in an Italian restaurant) with prawn agnolotti. Gluttonous husband was a busy lad. Most of the prawns featured in the various dishes on offer were complete. His exceptional peeling skills were brought to the fore. The soup was nice – certainly it was the right day to be consuming a chilled variety. The agnolotto was also quite pleasant. One needed to be careful when dismembering the prawn to ensure the nasty little vein was removed. It was perfectly pleasant, if not a wow.

gazpacchio with prawn agnolotti

Gazpacchio with prawn agnolotti

Next up was a banana prawn ceviche with a soy, ginger and mirin dressing. Again, a pleasant dish. A highlight was the collection of salad leaves including a Chinese spinach or beet leaf.
banana prawn ceviche

Banana prawn ceviche

We then moved to the dish of the night, flavour-wise. Black tiger prawn risotto with spinach and lemon butter. Greedy Girl asked for the wine pairing here, a Port Phillip Quartier Pinot Gris. The bottle was brought to the table and a glass poured. Greedy Girl put her nose to the test and was overcome by a distinctive blue cheese/old socks aroma. Hmmm, that couldn’t be right. The smallest taste confirmed that it was off. When we brought this to the waiter’s attention he was astounded – the wine was perfectly fine at lunch, he said, taking the glass away. Moments later he was back with a fresh bottle. ‘You were right,’ he said to Greedy Girl. Despite the hiccup, it was an excellent pairing with the risotto which was perfectly cooked. There wasn’t much of a lemon flavour in evidence but the rice combined brilliantly with the prawns (which were generous) and wilted spinach.
Black tiger prawn risotto with spinach and lemon butter

Black tiger prawn risotto with spinach and lemon butter

Next up was the dish pictured at the top of this blog, a king prawn wrapped in calamari, served with heirloom carrot and orange salad. This was all very edible but Greedy Girl didn’t feel as though any of the elements worked particularly well with each other. The salad on its own was nice but she didn’t enjoy it coupled with either the prawn or calamari. The calamari was tender and seasoned very well and the prawn was good – although gluttonous husband commented his prawn had started to go mushy.

Finally, there was a most dramatic-looking plate – a sand whiting. The presentation was excellent but Greedy Girl confesses to feeling a bit unnerved when confronted with fish eyes. The menu described this as being stuffed with prawn mousse, wrapped in pancetta, pan roasted and dressed with a shallot red wine sauce and topped with a green bean salad. Firstly – there was no evidence of a red wine sauce. The fish itself was well cooked – it flaked apart easily and was still moist. The mousse was no longer a mousse – it had been baked on to the fish and was rather solid and a bit dry. The green bean salad was a crunchy counterpoint. The best thing about this plate though was the slice of pancetta which was salty perfection – and that’s a little sad, when you think about it.

sand whiting

Sand whiting

We ate, we drank, we tried to avoid the incredible heat in the bathrooms upstairs and we departed. It was great value for the price but there was nothing about the food that made me want to sample more from this restaurant. Relaunching as Cucina di Esposito I suppose gives the establishment a new reason to showcase what it does and try to attract a new clientele but the experience left Greedy Girl (for want of a better expression given the climactic conditions) cold. Coupons should be a springboard for a restaurant, not just a way of filling seats on quiet nights. She wonders what’s likely to happen here next.

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