When we make a restaurant booking for a special occasion, most of us will desire light, fine Italian cuisine.
Because who doesn’t love four-cheese pasta with perfectly paired wine, and thin-crust pizza with rich herbs and spices? We’re unapologetically programmed to crave the deliciousness the Italians have brought to Australia for generations.
Bel & Brio is the quintessential dining destination – located in the bustling Barangaroo precinct – designed for everyone and for any occasion. The luxe, multipurpose venue offers a selection of rooms for unique forms of play: the lively bar and dining area, the quiet corso brio (the formal dining room), the private dining room (born for corporate functions and private birthday celebrations), the cellar, the marketplace (yes, you can buy the sauce that you tasted in your crab fettuccine just moments ago), and the cafe.
Executive chef Davide Incardona told bubble. the main owner is really passionate about all things Italian. “We wanted a mix of everything, so you can shop, you can dine, you can drink.”
With a philosophy of sustainable sourcing, Bel & Brio describes their dining experience on offer as paddock-to-plate dining. “I’d call my style modern Italian,” said Davide. “We try to be really close to perfection using fresh and special ingredients. We source a lot of ingredients from Italy but for all the fresh produce we source in Australia, like fish and meat. The vegetables come from our farm and everything is organic. Even with our pasta: we make it with our own eggs.”
My fellow critic/sister Eloise, and I, were offered tastes of the bar and dining menu, the Corso Brio a la carte menu, the Corso Brio degustation menu and the drinks menu. After a warm welcome from our naturally animated host, we were served a cocktail each, both beaming with personality.
My Sea Cloud drink boasted an infusion of Famous Grouse whisky, laphroaig 10 Yo Single Malt whisky, apple juice, honey ginger syrup, and green chartreuse (sprayed). The whisky based cocktail with the smoking cinnamon stick was a clever resemblance of ‘a whisky and cigar’ and had a nostalgic aroma of New South Wales’ Barrington Tops in autumn.
Eloise’s french martini (Grey Goose vodka, chambord and pineapple juice) looked not too dissimilar to a polished French manicure – it was aesthetically gorgeous. As the light jazz played in the warm-lit bar and dining room, we both sipped on our charismatic cocktails.
My camp-fire concoction and Eloise’s sweet sensation was nothing short of perfection and lived up to the hype of the physical imagery. A beautiful start to the evening. They were also coincidentally spot on with our particular palettes, as Eloise craves sweet spritzes and tropical flavours, whereas I go for zests of salt, spice, herbs and then also enjoy creamy consistencies.
Next came the salty goodness of the freshly shucked appellation oysters and raspberry mignonette, paired with classic margaritas. We felt like they knew us too well, as these are seriously top favourites of ours.
Davide told bubble. that the guests are the most important part of Bel & Brio. “I’m flexible with my drinks and dishes to suit what our customers are really wanting during the seasons. It’s also about the experience, it’s not just ‘yeah let’s go for dinner to eat Italian food’ – yes we’ve got that too, but if you want something more special, we deliver on that – especially with our dishes from the Corso menu, as it’s more fine-dining quality and very romantic.”
Out came the wild-caught New Zealand scampi with frisée salad, pickled turnips and lemon – and it did not disappoint. If I am to jump to the conclusion now, I’ll reveal this was Eloise’s personal favourite. It flirted nicely with our taste buds and we enjoyed the adventure of taking out the scampi in a careful and (hopefully) elegant manner.
This dish was followed by a classic gin martini. I think the consistent performance of ‘drink, dish, drink, dish’ helped keep us away from feeling squiffed. Eloise had one sip and quickly ushered her drink towards me, as she’s definitely not a fan of straight gin. I, on the other hand, adored the strength and the boldness of the drink. It was punchy and brilliant.
As Eloise and I chit-chatted about life and her wonderful idea of travelling America later in the year, our colourful host brought out a spaghetti dish united with spanner crab, fresh tomato, herbed charcoal bread crumb and chilli. We agreed this deserved a rating of 9/10. We couldn’t really fault the dish, it was so close to excellence. The crunch gave the pasta so much more character, and the bite-size bits of crab were little miniature treats on the scavenger hunt for bursts of flavour.
As the playful jazz music picked up, we were served a new set of cocktails, again flaunting rich, unforgettable flavours. I had the Sueňo De Verano – a deadly concoction of mezcal, grapefruit juice, fresh lime juice, chili tincture, and mint. Eloise’s Fiorente Spritz consisted of Grey Goose vodka, fiorente elderflower liqueur, prosecco, apple juice, and fresh lime juice.
As mentioned, I do love a spicy number and this rated highly on the many piquant aperitifs I’ve sampled in my early 20s. Eloise fell in lust at first sight with her cocktail, which quickly turned into a love affair after her first sip of the subtly sweet Fiorente Spritz.
The final savoury dish served to us was the slow-roasted lamb shoulder that was beautifully presented with sweet potato pure, balsamic baby onions, demi glace and crispy sage. Now, I usually rate seafood over meats, however this was the winner for me. I was pleased how the lamb wasn't gamey like at most restaurants – even the highly anticipated gourmet joints – and it was utterly flavourful. It was autumn on a plate: warm and buttery.
Chef Davide told bubble. he’s from the north side of Italy – about two hours from Milan – right in the alps, a beautiful mountain country-side area. Because of the weather and climate, Davide became familiar with a lot of slow-cooked meats and fish. “I’ve brought some of the dishes to Bel & Brio, like the lamb shoulder. It’s really coming from my traditions.
"My parents come from different sides of Italy – my mother from the north, where I grew up, and my father from the south. I experienced the warm and the cold. Hearty dishes from the North and light, Mediteranian seafood from the South. I grew up with both flavours from my parents and I try to present both sides here in Bel and Brio.”
To finish off the evening on a sweet note, we drank dessert cocktails and slowly savoured our coincidentally personalised pudding. Eloise sipped on the classic espresso martini whereas I traded my usual love for coffee-infused alcohol by taking a risk with the Luks cocktail: Havana Club 7Yo dark rum, licor 43, amaretto disaronno, pineapple Juice, egg white, orgeat syrup and fresh lime juice. We tried both drinks and couldn’t make up our mind about which we preferred more.
Eloise sampled her dessert and immediately told the chef this was the best tiramisu she’s ever had. Absolutely in awe, she was told the hazelnut tiramisu consisted of savoiardi biscuits, piedmont hazelnut mascarpone and wattle seed macaron. It wasn’t unoriginal, that’s for sure. As I’m personally not hugely smitten by the coffee-flavoured Italian dessert, I really didn’t mind Bel & Brio’s take on the classic recipe. However, the dessert I was served was a lot more up my alley.
The deconstructed pavlova plated to MasterChef standards was a dessert consisting of Italian meringue, lemon custard, seasonal wild berries, chocolate leaves, strawberry dust and macadamia crumb. It was the best, I’m sorry. The nutty crumb was everything.
Like the Sea Cloud cocktail, another waft of nostalgia consumed me: I was a child again playfully eating the simple yet hyper-flavoursome cake batter behind my mum’s back. It was dreamy, imaginative, quirky, distinctive. It was a constructed mess – a playground on my plate. The colour was bursting, and so were our taste buds. Eloise had a bite but quickly said “the tiramisu is mine, the pavlova is yours”. She was unapologetically more content with hers.
I asked chef Davide what his perfect autumn dish would be, as well as more about what to expect in this season’s menu. “I would say beautiful pasta with porcini mushroom, adding slow cooked wagyu beef to give it a bit more heaviness and warmth. That would be something that would work for autumn. We do change the menu seasonally, we probably change about 35-40% of the menu, which is quite a lot. The new autumn menu launched on the 6th of March. On there, you will definitely find the lamb shoulder – one of my signature dishes, and it will probably stay for winter too.”
Thank you Bel and Brio for surprising us and sharing an experience like no other.