Tucked away on the third floor of Next Hotel is the vast, cavernous temple to good food that is La Madonna.
The bar is a vast space, with plenty of comfortable couches and dimly lit corners for enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail. It's is a Willy Wonka's paradise for those who love their booze, with wooden barrels and glass bottles ageing various cocktails, tinctures and spirits. If you're lucky enough to score a ticket to an exclusive event at the Barrel Room, you're in for a treat. There are just eight seats in the room, and there are masterclasses on decanting and cocktail ageing. If you are extra fancy, have a chat with spirit master Phil Smithers about barrel-ageing your very own spirits or cocktails.
La Madonna is a guaranteed good night, even if you're not staying at the hotel itself. It's run by Melbourne cooking royalty Daniel Natoli (ex-Neptune Food and Wine) and Adrian Li (ex-Tokyo Tina), who are all about experimentation and fun. One of the most striking aspects of the high-ceilinged, stylish space is the double-storey dry-ageing cupboard, where the chefs are drying everything from whole ducks to sausages. The menu changes depending on the season, what produce is available and Li and Natoli's own whimsy, but it includes snacks, pasta, larger dishes and desserts. Your best bet is to leave it in Li and Napoli's capable hands – and share with your dining companions so you can try more delicious things. We loved the chicken liver parfait with prunes, porcini and miso; the cos lettuce, avocado, sorrel, spicy puffed farro and fairy shrimp; and the roasted golden beetroots with housemade duck ham and goat cheese pesto. Those dry-aged ducks don't just become ham, though – they are also available as either half or whole roasted birds. The sight of them in their glass-fronted dry-ageing cabinets might be enough to tempt you to splurge on them.
On Sundays diners can enjoy a family-style feast, with the 'La Famiglia' menu favouring simple, flavoursome dishes with free-flowing wine. The $65 set menu includes shared dishes of housebaked focaccia and crostini; antipasti; cured meats like mortadella, salami and bresaola; porchetta with walnut pesto and crunchy crackling; and green beans with yuzu kosho. Dessert is (of course) tiramisu, a boozy, espresso-soaked version that is La Madonna's most requested dessert.
And what would a long lunch be without wine? You can add free-flowing carafes of wine for $30 per person. La Madonna has the perfect Sunday lunch; just add family or friends.
Cassidy Knowlton dined as a guest of La Madonna.