Better read & fed: The Old Library, Cronulla

IN A FRENETIC YEAR OF RESTAURANT OPENINGS, 2011 ended on a high, with The Old Library setting a new benchmark for The Shire.

Seared scallops & grilled fennel with wild hop puree

Peripatetic Italian chef Danny Russo has probably opened more restaurants than most of us have had hot dinners. Regrettably, some of his more recent ventures were extremely ephemeral, but I’m praying The Old Library is a stayer.

Owner Mario Kalpou has done a wonderful job in restoring this century-old former Methodist church. He’s created a stylishly elegant space inside the barn-like dining room, combining a beach house sensibility with some witty evocations of the building’s more recent history as the town library.

The A3 placemat menu is a mix of Englanian and literary jokes, beginning with Introduction/stuzzichini, bite-sized snacks, such as bruschetta with tomato granita and white anchovy, $11, which echoes a tapa by Frank Camorra from Melbourne’s Movida, albeit without the same level of finesse.

Half a dozen polpette cacciatore, $10, beef meatballs, grilled on sticks, with a rich tomato sauce, are on more solid and familiar Italian ground, along with the excellent calamari fritti, $13/$22.

Ocean trout carpaccio with asparagus and almonds. * Peschiole al tartufo sold separately

From there the menu gets cute and slightly confusing – “Chapter 4” is antipasti, and “Chapter 9”, insalata (salads) before five pasta/rice dishes and then “Denouement”, meat and fish, which Italians normally call secondi. It my book, the denouement of any tale is dessert.

From the antipasti, a trio of small red peppers filled with creamed salt cod stand upright on pea puree like the few remaining 12 apostles on the Great Ocean Road and deliver a wonderful mix of salty and sweet flavours and creamy textures. The pleasant bitterness wild hop puree with seared scallops and grilled fennel, $23, is offset by a salty and acidic combination of capers and anchovies in another excellent starter.

I was excited to read that truffled dwarf peaches accompany a beautiful ocean trout carpaccio with asparagus and almonds, $23, but was disappointed when this distinctive, preserved Italian ingredient was missing, replaced by fresh peach. It’s like ordering George Clooney and getting Mick Malloy.

A marble communal table runs down the centre of the front room, which would suit the five “social plates”, $37-$78. The vegetarian antipasti is named “Why oh why eat the animals?”, the salumi plate “Because they taste so damn good!”, and the seafood grill “Throw another one on…” Yep, they’re having fun here and the service is youthful, charming, energetic and easygoing, which only ads to the delight.

Torbreck Woodcutters roussane/viognier/marsanne, $46, is a versatile white, aromatic, rich and minerally, on a wine list that divides its time between Italy and here. I’m chuckling to see wines over $130 listed under “How much do you really love her?” Not that much, but nice try anyway.

Red peppers filled with creamed salt cod on pea puree

For mains, the flaky, sweet white fillet of olive oil-poached halibut, $36, on braised octopus, olives and peppers has a quirky dollop of marmalade to sweeten the deal, while the braised beef and pea cannelloni, $24, covered in a thatch of rocket, looks like a best seller, although I’d prefer the beef softer and lusher.

Desserts seem a little whacky. Chocolate budino, $16 (an Italian fondant) has gorgonzola sharpening its melting centre and teeters slightly when combined with sharply tangy balsamic cherries, but just gets away with it, especially when refreshed by blueberry sorbet. A sorbet trio, $12, is safer, familiar ground.

The local tom toms have spread The Old Library’s gospel and just four weeks after opening, it’s already packed. It promises to be one of the hits of summer. In the evening light, it has that elusive, beguiling touch of magic all restaurants seek, but too few are blessed with. Expect quite a few late returns.


SCORE 8/10

Where Shop 1, 15 Surf Rd, Cronulla. Ph 9544 5360.

When Lunch & dinner Thu-Sun, noon-late

Food Italian

In a mouthful A new benchmark for Cronulla, this vibrant and breezy Italian is a joy and with Danny Russo in the kitchen, you know the food will deliver. 




 * A version of this review first appeared in The Daily Telegraph’s section, Dec 2011.

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