There were a lot of grim faces when we walked in. The lady who greeted us never cracked a smile the entire time we were there. The only staff I saw smile were a group of three bartenders, doing Tom Cruise styled cocktail tricks behind the bar. Everyone else seemed very serious. And not very friendly.
We weren't feeling particularly serious though. Our dinner club was meeting for a pre-Christmas dinner, any excuse for a group of girls to get together for a good meal, drink and a chat. Modo Mio was the choice tonight, and although we were forced into choosing between a 6.30pm or 8.30pm sitting time (neither of which were particularly appealing), we had bolstered our mood with a drink at La Vie beforehand.
I have eaten at Modo Mio before, and while I enjoyed the food, I had found the room oppressive. Tonight was no different, and while there are many beautiful elements to the decoration – such as the beautiful swirls on the mirrors, and the white mosaic bar which would appeal to any little girl who ever dreamed of living in an ice castle – there is an overwhelming amount of white in the room. And it is an enormous room, as such it feels like you are dining in a salt mine. I longed for a bit of colour (even wood) to give warmth to the space. A smile would also have helped make the place feel a bit friendlier too.
Modo Mio is a top quality Italian restaurant, with top quality produce and prices to match. Woodfired pizzas start at $26, the cheapest pasta is $30 and the rest of the second menu hover around the mid-$40 mark. This is not somewhere you visit for a cheap and cheerful meal before a show or punt on the pokies.
The heavenly smell of garlic was heavy in the air when we sat down, and with a good view into the bustling kitchen, we all agreed that garlic bread was required to start our meal.
Unfortunately, it was quite a wait, since it took almost ten minutes to attract someone's attention and let them know we were ready to order. We seemed to be suffering from that invisibility disease, where despite trying to make eye contact, politely raising a hand to attract attention – or even just being a waiting customer - staff seem to look right through you. And there is nothing worse than being teased by the formidable smell of buttery garlic and not actually being able to eat it.
On the flip side, once we did make our order (and we decided to be safe and order starters, drinks and mains all at once) the food came out relatively quickly.
The menu is divided into starters (7), soup (2), pasta (7), risotto (2), mains (6), pizza (7) and sides (3). As a rule of thumb starters, soup and pizza are less than $30, pasta are less than $40 and mains are less than $50. Unless of course you want White Rocks veal, Wagyu or black angus and then you're looking up to $90.
The garlic bread was worthy, although it came with cheese as well as garlic, which I thought was interesting. I ordered my main from the Regional specials menu: a chestnut and fig filled veal breast, with gremolata crust on a pearl barley risotto and nasturtium ($45). The dish was technically perfect, and cooked well. The risotto (is it actually risotto if it's not made with rice?) was creamy and the veal was tender. Unfortunately it was completely devoid of flavour. The sweetness of the fig was missing from the stuffing, and even a small amount of seasoning or spice or fresh herbs would have lifted the risotto. I guess there is a reason why pearl barley rarely makes an appearance on restaurant menus. I checked with a friend to make sure I wasn't being unfair, but she agreed that it was extraordinarily bland. I didn't finish it.
No one else had the same problem, and it would appear I just ordered poorly. The girls who ordered the Amelia Park lamb chop with crispy polenta, slow cooked lamb shoulder and seasonal vegetables ($47) were unanimously satisfied. I tried the slow cooked lamb and it was full of flavour and so tender, I certainly had a bit of food jealousy.
The group also ordered the freshly caught fish with balsamic caponata and romesco salsa ($48) and a Mediterranean seafood soup ($25) which was declared a standout.
The dessert menu comes separately and there were seven options including a lemon cake with balsamic and rosemary gelato ($15), a chocolate fondant with vanilla icecream ($18) and panna cotta with berry compote and pistachio gelato ($15).
The lemon cake seemed to be the winner of the desserts, with my friend later apologising for not sharing her rosemary gelato, she simply couldn't stop eating it. On the flip side, my friend who ordered the panna cotta dish only ate the panna cotta, saying the berry compote was too tart and the gelato rock hard and in need of a knife and fork.
I feel like I am being a party pooper now, but I have to say I didn't really enjoy my chocolate fondant. Again, it was perfectly cooked, it just lacked flavour. It was brown, but it didn't actually seem to have any chocolate in it, and there was a layer of something around the edge – probably to stop the pudding from sticking to the dariole mould – that had the consistency of polenta grains. Crunchy.
All in all it was a mixed night at Modo Mio. Some of the food was fantastic and some really ordinary and not worth the enormous price tags. It was unfortunate given that Modo Mio has just been awarded a Gold Plate award for excellence. And if they really want to have the friendliness and warmth of a real Italian trattoria, then the service staff need to take some happy pills and have a big group hug.