Such is the popularity of Hubert, the underground French bistro in the CBD from the Swillhouse group, that nearly three years after opening it’s still not guaranteed that you won’t hit a waitlist for a table when you reach the bottom of that majestic spiralling staircase.
But the hospo group that brought you bars like the Baxter Inn, Shady Pines Saloon and Frankie’s Pizza by the Slice have clearly developed a taste for the restaurant game, swinging open the doors on a casual Italian diner just before the end of 2018.
It feels very good to be eating pasta once again in the laneway hideaway that used to be Berta, right behind the AFP headquarters on the CBD fringe. Inside, it’s a highly condensed version of the Hubert interiors with vintage posters and prints in giant frames taking up any wall space not devoted to pigeonholes packed with wine. It’s tight, and it needs to be because the early adopters are already out in force.
The cacio e pepe gnocchi is reason enough to visit – meltingly soft potato dumplings in a silky pecorino butter emulsion spiked with lots of black pepper. More nonna points are scored for a very good Amatriciana, a classic red sauce punctuated with crunchy fried gems of guanciale and coating impressively tender house-extruded bucatini pasta tubes.
Things get even more rustic and a little left field with the tripe. The soft, wobbling, gelatinous beef offal is coated in a forceful sauce made from cream, tomato paste, butter, pecorino, mint, guanciale and garlic, but in a surprise twist they also add garam marsala and fenugreek for echoes of butter chicken. It’s the strength of flavours that provides structure of this dish. In fact, soft and comforting can describe a lot of what’s coming out of the kitchen here, from sweet roasted red peppers stripped of their skins and bathed in fermented tomato water vinaigrette with winks of prawn oil (order fennel-spiked bread to make an ad-hoc bruschetta) to a very creamy, one-note macadamia panna cotta.
For crunch you need to bookend your meal with the spicy housemade potato chips cut so thin they’re like stained glass, and perhaps a cannolo for dessert filled with chocolate cream.
Alberto’s is a very good place to really relax into your drinks. They mix a perfect Gibson and have revived the Amaretto Sour – here a softly tropical, nutty refresher that almost reads like pineapple instead of a almond lemon sucker punch. You can get a draught lager for nine bucks, or drop nearly 20 on an Garage Projects Champagne pilsner imported from New Zealand, and if you want to spend your Christmas bonus on wine, open to the middle of the wine list, where they’ve devoted an entire page to Piedmontese Barolos. And as Hubert has taught you, maybe the hard way, it’s very easy to spend big on wine here, but there’s a glut of entry-level bottles if your budget lives firmly sub $100. Or maybe the best strategy is to just keep your glass full of the ultralight rosé from Jura in France, whose refreshing powers make this cost Italian tratt a compelling destination even at the height of summer.