Town Hall Hotel
Disclaimer: I did not pay for my meal, Town Hall Hotel hosted a free media lunch. The opinions reported below are based solely on my thoughts at the time of my visit.
Address: 166 Johnston Street, Fitzroy
Phone: (03) 9419 5055
Tuesday to Saturday, midday until 3pm and 6pm until late
Sunday, 11.30am until 3pm
“Everything you see, I owe to pasta,” said my favourite Italian bellezza, Sophia Loren. If she were to visit Melbourne, specifically Fitzroy, she might rework her phrase in a blissful exhale, “everything you see, I owe to Town Hall Hotel.” It doesn’t sound quite as romantic, but when you’re snapping salt-encrusted grissini in half and popping olives dripping with oil into your mouth, you’re hardly going to care about anything else.
Recently I was invited to a media lunch at Town Hall Hotel to celebrate esteemed owner-chef Harry Lilai. After eating there, I didn’t want to celebrate Harry, I wanted to hug him senseless (If Mrs. Lilai, Michelle, is reading this, I assure you any hugging would be purely based on admiration). You probably know Harry from his ten year stint at Cecconi’s, or more recently, Orange. Either way, he has a quarter of a century of cooking under his hats. That makes me minus two years old the day Harry first picked up a wooden spoon.
The pub itself has a history of characterless venues. Before it reverted to its original name, it was Griffs Wine Pub with stained carpet and walls you avoided at all costs, like an escalator rail. Prior to that it was the Purple Turtle. The décor in the dining room of Town Hall Hotel isn’t anything to write home about—the furniture is bland, some walls are gaudy red, others are white and all of it is dated. It gives the room a comfortable, relaxed vibe that doesn't try too hard with hanging terrariums and designer chairs (instead, there's a vase and other bits and pieces from Mr. and Mrs. Lilai's house). Make sure you check out the handsome basement wine cellar, which I’d book for a special occasion in a heartbeat. Upstairs is plain but smart, filled with light and ideal for functions. Not that any of it matters once you try the food.
We started with cichetti (snacks) of hot, fresh dates stuffed with oozy taleggio and suffocated by crisp pancetta. I couldn’t help but scald the roof of my mouth, they were too good to let cool down. After a tour of the space and much anticipation, we sat down at an oversized white tablecloth decorated with white blossoms and leafy green sprigs in jars. The dates were merely a sign of things to come.
Chickpea battered oysters were a textural explosion, creamy and crunchy all at once with a fragrant hit of pickled fennel. Sticking to the sea theme were slithers of yellow fin tuna crudo (it’s Italian for raw). The shaved horseradish, paper-thin shallots and capers sprinkled on top looked like a delicate garden, while the sweet saffron dressing bound the components together.
Next, a bed of bresaola rested beneath a roasted fig overflowing with creamy goat’s curd and drizzled with honey mustard dressing; a tribute to the power of simple, quality ingredients. Thin slices of seared beef carpaccio, a ball of truffled beef tartare and shavings of reggiano forced me to close my eyes and sit back in my chair. The amalgamation of the silky tartare and earthy notes of truffle was truly blissful.
I managed to get my fork on the last baccala (salted cod) arancini, a golden ball adorned with shards of parma ham, red onion and witlof. Then I had a moment with the next dish: a thin tart crust resembling a cracker barely supporting sliced duck breast, and finished with a generous quenelle of duck liver parfait that made us suppress vocal foodgasms.
Larger dishes followed. Appetizing yellow pumpkin and leek tortelloni perfectly cooked in a puddle of lemon butter and scattered with salty prosciutto and fresh ricotta. Al dente risotto richly flavoured with porcini, confit garlic and truffled pecorino. Creamed baccala prepared simply with curls of white onion and parsley on a pile of soft polenta, no butter spared.
The osso bucco Milanese on saffron-spiked rice with gremolata was an example of how Harry Lilai does it better than anyone else. You only had to look at the meat for it to fall off the bone, after which the table full of food writers picked up the remains and sucked with all their might—can’t let that marrow go to waste.
At this point, Harry kneeled next to us and asked with puppy dog eyes, “do you have time for dessert?” I didn’t. But I made time. And I’m glad I did.
A tiramisu made with marscapone and soaked in strega, kahlua and coffee converted me from a tiramisu-skeptic into a tiramisu-devotee. The hot chocolate pudding exuded fudgy goodness and contrasted superbly with cold malt ice cream and zesty blood orange compote.
Coconut panna cotta with pineapple and lime salsa was firm and fun to eat, like a solidified piña colada. Bombolone surprised us with an orange blossom custard centre and honey ice cream that left the same heated sensation at the back of the throat that follows a spoonful of honey from the jar.
It’s easy to miss Town Hall Hotel. I’m based around the corner and drive past it almost every day. I didn’t think to visit until I was invited. Hopefully, if you’re reading this, you won’t make the same mistake as I did and drive on by. I acknowledge that I ate on the house at Town Hall Hotel, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was one of the best meals I’ve had this year. The dishes are simple and skillfully flavoured, the produce is heavenly and Harry’s experience and the passion of his team shine through every mouthful. As the Italians say, tutto è bene che riesce bene: all is well that ends well.