Crown Casino Complex, Melbourne (map)
Since it first opened and the first gushing write-ups appeared on other food blogs, I was excited about Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons, Maurice Terzini's contribution to the new generation of über-restaurants springing up along the promenade at Crown Casino. Yes visiting GAS would mean breaking my self-imposed boycott of all businesses in the Crown Casino complex, but my conflicting desire to check out the gamberetti with aioli, the salumi and the spaghetti in a paper bag won out in the end...
I arranged to meet up there with some good friends for dinner on a Tuesday, which I dubbed Decadent Tuesday in my lengthy, excited email invitation to them. Decadent Tuesday would involve us meeting early to sip aperitifs at the bar while we put our name down for a table (as they have a no bookings policy); we would then proceed to (a) order THE most fabulous-sounding items on the menu, (b) spend far too much money and (c) drink like it was a Friday night - all in the name of decadence.
Having tiptoed out of work at a relatively early hour, I felt a surge of excitement as I crossed over the river and the first Casino flames billowed up into the cold evening air. I met CJ nursing a Negroni at the bar (she'd been the second person across the threshold at 6pm, ensuring we'd get a good table) and ordered a Spritz Aperol (the drink to have this summer in Italy, dahling - if my brother is to be believed). B-f-K also arrived and also ordered a Negroni. We received word that our other dining companion A wouldn't be able to make it, but that was okay. The shiny-domed bartender was doing a fine job and the venue looked simply fabulous.
THEN IT ALL STARTED TO GO WRONG. Holding our drinks, we went up to the girl assigning tables and asked to be seated, informing her that there would now be only three of us dining instead of four, if that helped matters at all. She made an adjustment on her piece of paper and marched us through the mostly empty restaurant past the Wild Salumi Enclosure, past the theatrical Wall of Bread, past the tables with Turkish steam bath tiles both under and above them, to... a tiny little table right next to the kitchen's prep station. A table which would have been cramped even for two people - but for three people, it was ridiculous. The people facing each other had no elbow room as the table was jammed lengthwise hard up against the wall. And as for the person facing the wall (papered with celebrity autographs and customer testimonials, La Porchetta-style), the cramped conditions meant that her paper placemat/menu was almost entirely covered by the other two placemat/menus, making it impossible to read. Our cocktail glasses, water glasses, olive oil bowl and bread basket took up all available space in the middle of the table.
Sitting cheek by jowl to such a battery hen degree is fine if you're nursing a single bowl of teriyaki don and chopsticks at a venue like Don Too. Not if you're ordering multiple courses at a stylish pricey restaurant it isn't. Our biggest mistake of the night was failing to then and there request a different table.
After a few minutes our labcoated waiter walked up to our table and without any preamble asked what we wanted. I explained we wanted to share a bunch of items and requested the warmed mixed olives, the guanciale from the salumi cabinet, the gambaretti (sic), the spaghetti all'arrabbiata and the eggplant parmigiano. His face completely expressionless, he scribbled the items down with his stylus into his electronic gizmo and left without another word. Charming. Three tables away, I could see a poised professional waiter beginning his spiel to a smiling table of six: "Good evening ladies and gentlemen. First and foremost, can I recommend that you try the following antipasti...". Sigh. So near, yet so far! Feeling a little like second class citizens, we craned our necks and observed the rapidly filling restaurant.
Ten minutes later Captain Charming approached our table and deposited the guanciale, then quickly reappeared with ALL of the other dishes. Simultaneously. We looked at him is disbelief: "We can't fit all of those plates on this table. THIS TABLE IS TOO SMALL." He shrugged, mumbled something about how you'd be surprised how much stuff can be made to fit, and crammed it all on anyway, so that plates were protruding off the corners of our table. By this stage, we could see that there were no empty tables in the restaurant. We looked at each other with raised eyebrows and with some reluctance started eating.
So how was the food? Well... it was good but it wasn't great. The guanciale was fatty and had a flavour so delicate it left me underwhelmed (though in retrospect, I should have chosen a bolder cut of meat). The eggplant was excellent. The spaghetti with chillied tomato and crab reminded me of a risotto done upstream at Tutto Bene. The gamberetti were crunchy and tasty, but were cold by the time we got around to eating them. Because everything had arrived at once.
Argh! I lay a lot of blame at the Converse-sneakered feet of Captain Charming. I can only assume (and hope!) that he's a student/part-time waiter and not a professional. Surely a professional waiter, taking in the size of our table and our order, would have suggested "How about I bring out just the olives and the salumi to start, then I'll bring out the gamberetti, then the rest?". The GAS staff seem to be under a lot of pressure to rush customers through and ensure a high turnover (we were out in a little over an hour after sitting down), but again: this isn't Don Too. SURELY our dishes could have been staggered somewhat.
You know that sad sinking feeling when you've realised your special evening is turning into a disaster but you pretend it isn't happening, because once you acknowledge it with your friends it'll be OUT THERE and you won't be able to pretend otherwise? Well, that's how we felt: very deflated, but still valiantly trying to salvage the mood. B-f-K commented that she loved these little wild Australian olives, and launched into telling us a funny story. As CJ and I were laughing, Captain Charming whisked away our remaining plates - including the olive plate which still had about a dozen olives on it. We were too surprised to stop him, and sat for a few moments in bewildered silence. What the hell was going on?!
At no time did anyone come to enquire how our meal was going. How I wish they had! I felt like tugging our waiter's sleeve and pleading "You don't understand... there seems to have some mistake... this is supposed to be Decadent Tuesday, not Disastrous Tuesday!"
Did we want dessert? Well we had discussed in advance the possibility of ordering the Zuppa Inglese (which Lethlean had that very day fawned over in his Top 20 dishes so far for 2008). I asked Captain Charming whether we could get the Zuppa Inglese. He stared at me for a moment, then monotoned "Oh, you want the zuppa." (pronouncing it to rhyme with 'supper'). The corners of my mouth tightening, I forced a smile and nodded.
I don't know what Mister Epicure got himself so worked up about. The almonds, pistachio and raspberries on top were nice, but the jelly layer was far too thick and more importantly the trifle contained no discernable grappa (or any other liqueur for that matter). I acknowledge that by this stage of the meal we'd all admitted what a shit time of it we were having, which no doubt clouded our judgement to an extent. I doubt that we'd have been so critical of the food if we'd had a different table and a competent waiter. What a difference good service makes, eh. As it was, we couldn't wait to get the hell out of there!
So there you have my bitterly disappointing night at Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons. I certainly hope that this review doesn't sound petty - it has been very unenjoyable and difficult to write. Regular readers of Melbourne Gastronome will know that I very rarely write negative reviews (if I don't like a place I prefer to just omit writing anything), and am not a overly fussy, difficult customer. On the contrary, I'm pretty easy to please - with GAS my hopes were high but throughout the night I kept trying to see the upside, kept trying to justify the situation, despite the increasingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But put plainly, our experience sucked.
So much for Decadent Tuesday! :_(