Friday, 1 February 2013

The Mess Hall

51 Bourke St
Melbourne, VIC 3000

Is there a cuisine that you avoid like the plague? It’s not that I have anything against Italian food; in fact I find most of it to be delicious. But a lot of the time, Italian restaurants in Melbourne are overpriced, and I always walk away feeling like I could have made a decent replica of it at home, and I’m a fair cook at best. The Mess Hall had been on my radar for a while now but it was only recently, when I took a good, hard look at their menu, that I realised just how much it appealed to me.

The Mess Hall is easy to miss. Being a humble, whitewashed building up in the vicariously fashionable end of Bourke Street, you’ll really only notice it if you’re looking. In fact upon finding it, the modest facade triggered no memories in either of us, despite our extensive wanderings around the city for the last 6 years.

But once you’re inside, The Mess Hall is rustic and intimate. It’s especially lovely on a Saturday afternoon, filled with the last light of the day coming through the skylight, and the glow of flickering candles.  There’s also an upstairs dining room but it wasn’t nearly busy enough to warrant its usage when we visited.

Pork Belly ($25.5)

The menu is short and sweet, but more than two-thirds of what was on offer caught my eye. But the Pork Belly ($25.5) was going to be ordered, no doubt about that. Now, pork belly is a funny thing; when done wrong it is disgusting but once it’s done right, it is so right – there are no grey areas there! And this one is so right. The meat under the salty, crispy crackling was so tender it pulled away at the tug of a fork, its flavour multiplied manifold by the thin layer of fat. Served alongside is the timeless addition of potatoes and beans, pepped up with a crispy twirl of cucumber pickle that I really should’ve rationed out, instead of shoving straight into my mouth.

Orrechiette ($23.5)

Unfortunately the Orrechiette ($23.5) fell short of the lofty expectations set by the pork belly. For the price tag I was expecting something gourmet and exciting but what came out was no more, and no less than a bowl of home-made pasta, even with the addition of osso bucco  in the ragu. On the upside, the meat was tender and flavoursome, and the sauce light and summery. On the downside, the pasta was cooked way past al dente, and the addition of cannellini beans and kale isn’t nearly as exotic as I had hoped. It’s a decent meal but remember what I said about feeling as if I could make a similar one at home?

Crema Catalana ($12.5)

Crema Catalana ($12.5)? Of course we ordered it! I didn’t like how the sugar shell was thin and brittle; I tend to prefer mine slightly bitter and toffee-like, but breaking through it we came to a thick and decadent custard flavoured with a hint of orange. It was much too delicious and much too small.

Our dinner at The Mess Hall was enjoyable for what it is; the service was friendly and the ambience was soothing and enjoyable. But I feel as if it’s trying a little too hard to be fancy when its drawcard should really be humble, homely food. I’d come back for the pork belly alone but I’d tread a little more carefully if I wanted to order something else.

Rating: 13.5/20 – overcooked pasta.  

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  1. I feel the same way about Italian food! I like it but it's so darn expensive in Melbourne, gah!

    1. Right? I wonder what justifies them charging $25 for a plate of european noodle-variation? At least there's still good old macaroni trattoria italiana :)