Oh Melbourne. You and your middle-tier restaurant excellence. Sure, we've got the flash, big-night-out thing covered, but it's the restaurant in the middle – the cool place where you can have a meal any day without spending a million bucks and still eat amazing food – that seems so easy for you and so hard for us. At least till now. We're clawing our way up the ranks with the likes of Bloodwood, Fratelli Paradiso and Fresh, Bodega and Vini. And now here's Berta, the new restaurant from Vini owner and chef Andrew Cibej – a concrete bunker on Alberta Street filled with Italian wine, share plates of Italian food and a room buzzing with people having a good time.
And while Berta is distinctly un-Vini-like on the plate, there's a very similar aesthetic at work. The food and wine menus written on big chalkboards, the dark palette, the dim lights and the lively atmosphere. Oh, and the whole no-bookings thing. The menu is broken into fairly share-worthy propositions – while you could easily construct a meal for one, the food is far better translated as an Italian-style feast. Try the likes of cuttlefish and zucchini – fingers of tender cuttlefish enriched with extra squid ink very, very gently pan fried accompanied by rounds of zucchini. They're all dressed in olive oil and brightened with preserved lemon. The result is inky, viscous and fresh.
Fried cauliflower and chickpeas may sound like a healthy salad but it's more like a bar snack. Here, both ingredients are deep fried with leaves of crisp rosemary – perfect with a beer. A lighter hand with the rosemary would be no bad thing. Make sure to order the radicchio, pan fried with sugna – pronounce it 'soonya' – little nibs of rendered, whipped pork fat with fennel seed. These bitter greens are sweetened up with caramelised red wine vinegar topped with toasted breadcrumbs. Break it up with a broth of oxtail and bits of oxtail meat interspersed with little knots of tortellini filled with wild greens that pop in your mouth with chlorophylly badassitude.
If you're a diehard prawn fan, order away but for us, whole prawns with nothing but chilli oil and capers to keep them company doesn't pop as a dish the way everything else does. Instead go for the big ol' plate of mixed suckling pig bits (leg, loin, belly, wiggly little tail) with crisp, scorched golden skin. And order a side of braised green lentils with leeks and chicory – perfetto. Or slices of pan fried lamb rump with white bean mash and salsa verde and maybe a salad of watercress with thin fans of raw fennel.
O Tama Carey is behind all these tasty snacks. For the last little while she's been cooking at Vini and before that Billy Kwong but you wouldn't necessarily pick that from the food here. While we're on the subject of people-who-make-Berta-awesome, there's Kristen Allen on the floor. She's from Vini too, and knows more than a thing or two about booze. A good thing, considering Berta's exciting all-Italian wine list and very impressive range of grappa.
For dessert, buffalo milk and bay leaf sorbet makes a great palate cleanser or go for a real winter warmer like the tart covered with a waterfall of crème patisserie topped with a tongue of lewdly crimson quince and a little nest of caramelised sage leaves. There's also the baked chestnut custard – a bit of a table divider – with mandarin. There's a real mealiness to it that Carey describes as a feeling rather than a texture. Order it and see for yourself.
Sydney doesn't need any more fine dining restaurants. Want views and starched waiters and triple sieved sauces? This town's got 'em in spades. What we need more of is Berta.