Slicker Than Your Standard Soft Serve: Messina Degustation Review
Yes Boy Rating: ★★★★☆
Degustation menus aren't anything new, and thanks to Heston Blumenthal's much-aired wacky professor flair for bringing the theatrical to mundane dishes and foodstuffs, many people don't get as excited by them as they used to. Ice cream though... ice cream is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter who you are, I challenge you to not get excited by the concept of a dedicated 7 course ice cream menu that gets a little eclectic.
In Australia, Messina is the undisputed godfather of gelato. Where America has Ben & Jerry's throwing everything but the kitchen sink into tubs and charging a tidy price for it, Messina is more old school. Their gelato uses less cream, less sugar, and tastes all the better for it. Their Creative Department actually uses a little creativity – rather than just throw piles of chocolate and cookie dough into a blender, they stew their own rhubarb, roast their own pistachios, and get experimental.
It's with this in mind that Messina have opened up their Creative Department in Darlinghurst for the hot ticket item for ice cream lovers in Australia – a 7-course degustation with drink pairings, for 8 guests at a time. At $130 for a seat at the table, expectations for this prix fix menu are high.
(IMAGE QUALITY DISCLAIMER: With Yes Boy's ticket becoming available at the very last minute, I unfortunately didn't access to my DSLR at such short notice to capture the gelato goods in crisp HD. While I wasn't annoying everyone with my lumbering camera at the start of every course, I still looked like very much the food blogging prat with my Snapchat Spectacles videoing away, and had access to an iPhone 8 to get the stills.)
This is a communal experience, so there's a communal start time. Thankfully, all the guests arrived promptly, and our host, Remi Talbot, introduced what the evening was all about. Remi is the creative force behind the degustation – with work restaurants around the world, including the Michelin-starred Den in Japan, he knows his sweets.
Everyone received a date-stamped menu, with Remi encouraging us not to peek at the upcoming courses, and rather let him explain each one as they emerged from the small kitchen hidden behind the partition in the intimate single-tabled dining room.
A loud clunk from behind the scenes heralded the arrival of the first course. Peering into the kitchen, I saw the source of the noise - two of the chefs were pouring liquid nitrogen out of a large metal tank. A few moments later, smoking ice bowls were placed in front of us, filled with granita of chamomile and juniper berries. A moment later, Remi took out a pipette, and dropped some extra virgin olive oil from NSW into the bowls.
You'd be forgiven for immediately thinking that this was going to be all theatrics for theatrics' sake. Not at all. This is all carefully thought out – the olive oil took the string out of the juniper berries' tail perfectly, while the granita melting in the mouth in moments. As a palate cleaner, this was a belter.
The classic ice cream cone was up next, but not in the proportions you'd expect.
Were we being gypped with nouvelle cuisine portions? Was Messina pulling a fast one?
The size was perfectly justified – honey dew melon and Sansho pepper sorbet with honey dew melon-infused anise spirit is a delightfully tart combination of flavours, and doesn't needed a heaped scoop to sock you right in the kisser. Topped with finger lime and delicately heaped into a crispy cone that began to melt itself as soon as it was touched, this was one to eat quickly.
Our first drink pairing was also unveiled – a green apple and burnt line blend with burnt lime leaves that had a rounded quality to its zest. The double-up of lime and lime was in no a bread and bread kind of affair, but rather got the saliva flowing.
Course number three brings in savoury players to the menu, fending off any sugar overload. A rich green ricotta ravioli is delicately drizzled with Japanese kombu butter emulsion by Remi,
then we're left to drop the parsley oil sherbet and native sea plants on top ourselves.
Interactive courses are the name of the game. Now, pairing sweet and savoury is so often a conflicting mess, and it was at the arrival of this course that I got worried.
Boy, were those fears unfounded. The use of parsley's savoury foundation for the ice cream, paired with the gentle creaminess of the butter and ricotta made this an immediate favourite of the evening so far. The ravioli itself had a subtle firmness to it too, meaning that the addition of melting ice cream didn't turn it into a soggy mess.
Its drink pairing continued the Japanese theme introduced by the kombu butter. A warming Houjicha tea with roasted shiitake oil contained a deep umami flavour which I found a little overpowering. That being said, it was a great move not to have this with a sweet course, or the contrast would've been too great.
Half a coconut in the form of an au natural bowl comes out next, which proved to be one of the more orthodox dishes of the evening. Salted coconut gelato with syrupy apricot and subtle elderflower reminded me of childhood apricot tarts with a dollop of Cornish vanilla ice cream. Nostalgia in a bowl.
The drink pairing retained the more experimental theme of the evening's menu, featuring an infusion of peach, tonka bean and lemon verbena. This was a nicely rounded blend, with the addition of lemon offering a slight citrus kick to separate it from the creamy quality of the ice cream.
My memories of childhood tarts were perhaps foreshadowing of the next course – an heirloom and kumato tomato tart with blood plum compote and koji gelato, paired with a ginger and lemongrass kombucha. There was more of a distinct definition between the sweet and savoury elements to this course, and the puff pastry was just a flaky wonder.
Slightly controversial here, but the next course was perhaps a little too bold for me. On the surface, there were no wild flavours jockeying for position – a butter and sage gelato with potato foam and crisps with XO sauce. However, the seafood undertones of the XO pushed forward a little too much salt into the foreground, with no countering sweetness to balance it out. There was sweetness from the drink pairing of Seedlip Spice '94, watermelon rind shrub and wattleseed, but taking a sip followed a mouthful of gelato wasn't the best workaround.
Talk about going out with a bang though. To close, a spiced muscovado gelato was topped with decadent 64% chocolate foam, and encased in a puffed buckwheat crust. This is Messina chocolate made from scratch, and it's packing a richness that you wouldn't believe. An orange and oak barrel infusion was reminiscent of an aged port, and had a slight smokiness amongst the rounded fruity tones.
This is pure chocolate gooeyness. This is looking down and realise you're making a wonderful mess.
So, is a 7-course ice cream tasting menu for you? Will it leave you in a diabetic coma? I may be the wrong guy to answer this, as all through my life I've consumed a quite heroic amount of sugar on a daily basis. It's only in recent years that I've tried to rein it in in my hope for a longer life. That aside, Messina have managed to craft a menu that isn't sickly or overbearing. There're enough savoury elements included to ensure you don't hit any sugar highs or lows throughout the evening.
In terms of if it'll fill you up, that's a tough one. Having a light meal maybe an hour and a half beforehand is probably a good idea - while these are bold, imaginative takes on desserts, they are still desserts, and therefore aren't going to leave you stuffed.
With eight seats at the table, unless you book the entire room out with your friends, you'll be sharing the experience with strangers. The company while I was there was lovely, and the pure spectacle of being presented with such colourful and creative dishes makes any awkward silences at the table on any evening highly unlikely, surely.
The evening isn't cheap, but it doesn't for a moment feel overpriced. You're not going to find desserts like these anywhere else in Sydney - Messina has found its niche, and it's a sweet one.
Book here to grab your seat at the table, Thursday to Sunday. Be quick though - the current run of events is only until the 22nd of April.