date of visit: Thurs 5 July 2012

I have ummed and ahhed about writing this review. I visited Assaggio as part of a large group (there were 12 of us) which dines out fortnightly on a Thursday. This was my first time dining with most of the people and I always feel a bit self conscious reviewing someone else’s choice of venue. I also think that very often a large group is an unfair test of a restaurant.

However, last night Assaggio was awarded Restaurant of the Year in the Restaurant and Catering (SA) Awards for Excellence. This pushed me into putting down a few thoughts, because, frankly, my meal didn’t represent the best meal of the year (or, indeed, the best value meal of the year). And a bit of balanced consumer criticism never goes astray.

There are some things about Assaggio which I rate very highly. A dedicated vegetarian menu is available at all times – which is a definite plus because too many places offer just a token vegetarian offering*. The interior has plenty of soft surfaces so that, even though the tables are somewhat snug, there is none of the clatter that you endure at so many restaurants and cafés. Décor is smart and there is a wide window to peep into the kitchen.

Service was reasonably smooth but certainly not flawless: there was the occasional hiccup or delay with various requests (noted because one of those requests was my glass of wine!). A distinct incongruity was the fact that, when serving plates, the staff wore white gloves. The restaurant is simply not that smart. I’m actually struggling to recall going to any other restaurant where waiting staff served wearing gloves …

Food and wine wise, things certainly didn’t live up to their price tag. I ordered a glass of the Felton Road Chardonnay, which was around $15. Felton Road is a well known and tidy NZ producer and while I’m not overly familiar with the wine I have a sneaking suspicion that the bottle had been open a day or two too long. The punter ordering wine by the glass needs to be aware that this can be a problem, as does the restaurateur. If the wine is pricey enough that you’re going to keep on serving it when it’s a little past its prime you need to take it off your ‘by the glass’ list. Very often I’d query a glass in this kind of condition but, in a large group of people, most of whom I don’t know, I preferred to keep my mouth shut and let the evening keep on moving.

For entrée, I ordered the stuffed zucchini flowers. They were stuffed with a spinach, gorgonzola, ricotta and pine nut mousse. The gorgonzola wasn’t particularly strong so if you’re someone who’s not a big fan of blue cheese, don’t let that put you off. Unfortunately, while the filling was fine, the delicate flowers were swamped by a heavy breadcrumb crust, so that the dish became more about that crust than about the flowers or mousse. At $19 a serve this was a disappointing to say the least.

Main course wise I think I chose poorly. Or rather, I lacked imagination because I opted for the guitar string saffron pasta, served with blue swimmer crab and a tomato and shellfish sauce. There was nothing wrong with this dish and, price wise, it was on a par with the shellfish pasta I’d had at the Highway Hotel a week earlier. But at a restaurant that’s winning Best Restaurant gongs? I’d expect it to eclipse a pub pasta by a long way.

When we got to dessert I was, genuinely, quite full – so at least portion sizes aren’t a problem at Assaggio. I ordered the nougat. At $9 a serve I wasn’t sure what I was going to get. Oh – a piece of nougat, perhaps 3 cm long and 1 cm square (I’m being generous). I wasn’t the only person to order the nougat and I wasn’t the only person whose eyes popped out of their head at the combination of miserliness and cost!

After including my coffee, my share of the bill (and we did actually split the bill along individual lines because there’d been quite a disparity in ordering) came to $80. That’s the same as I paid at Press where I’d had more interesting food and considerably more to drink!

My impression was that Assaggio was nice but overpriced for what it was. And since that meal I’ve chatted to quite a few people, to see if my experience was a one off. Uniformly, opinion has been the same: “nice”, “good”, “too expensive”, “other places I’d go first”.

Is it enough for the “Best Restaurant” in South Australia to be “good” or “nice”? I don’t think so when there are so many restaurants where you can find “exciting” and “excellent”.

* Incidentally, Assaggio also offers a gluten free menu, although no one at our table made use of that.

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