There’s not a polenta packet in sight at Andre Ursini’s impressive Kensington Road venture Orso.
It’s been a decade since Andre Ursini first came to our attention as a 28-year-old MasterChef contestant with a driving ambition to start his own restaurant. Rather than fade into obscurity after leaving the show as a finalist, Ursini forged ahead and opened his eponymous city-based polenta bar in 2009.
Later came a catering company and wholesale business and now there’s Orso, a contemporary European bistro housed in a cleverly-renovated bluestone building on Kensington Road.
Orso is not another Italian restaurant. There’s not a polenta packet in sight, and the kitchen is led by head chef Will Doak (ex-Press Food and Wine) who has designed a more broadly Mediterranean menu.
We’d booked an 8pm table on a mid-week night and arrived deliberately early for a pre-dinner drink at Willmott’s Gastronomia, the adjoining deli and bar with a personality all of its own. More on that later.
When it was time to dine, we wandered past a spectacular open-plan kitchen with marble bench tops and Josper charcoal oven and fire pit. It’s great to be able to observe the buzz of such a well-choreographed kitchen brigade.
The dining room is a design triumph with an ochre-hued Venetian plaster wall, leather banquette, beechwood furniture and thoughtful lighting for evening sittings. I’d heard previous grumbles that the room was too noisy but felt the sound absorption panels on the ceiling were effective on this full-house night.
The service was spot on from engaging staff who were attentive (but not too attentive) and up to speed with the food and wine being served.
Orso’s menu, designed to share, offers an a la carte selection or a feed-me option. We took the a la carte path that offers a selection of half a dozen smaller dishes, three pasta, six mains and a trio of side dishes.
The wine list is a cracker – a global affair with Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian labels but we stayed closer to home with Big Easy Radio’s Perpetual Holidaze Grenache from McLaren Vale.
We kicked off on a fresh note with a beautifully-plated kingfish crudo (raw) with little cubes of translucent, delicate fish, tarama (fish roe), zesty finger lime, sugar snap and the gentlest hint of vanilla.
From the larger dishes, I was tempted by a personal fave – Brussels sprouts with tahini yoghurt, currants, pistachios and anchovy dressing – but in the end I couldn’t get past the pappardelle. The silky, wide ribbons of fresh pasta were well coated with a full-flavoured ragú of soft and tender braised duck with a sweet lift from madeira, a nice chilli spike and fleshy, salty green olives sauce. It’s now my go-to version of this classic Venetian dish.
Orso’s menu includes steak – not just any old beef but the award-winning Jack’s Creek branded wagyu. The cut served is rump cap with a marbling score of 9+ the highest grade for flavour and a favourite cut with chefs. The beef was crusty on the outside and extremely juicy with a deep, rich, savoury flavour.
A melting, creamy peppercorn and anchovy butter was the perfect foil for the umami-rich steak while braised cime di rapa (Italian broccoli rabe) added green goodness. The bitter greens are one of the fresh produce items grown at Ursini’s own 20-acre kitchen garden property at Mylor.
We also shared a side of crisp, sweet cosberg lettuce with a splash of Chardonnay vinegar and microplaned Parmigiano Reggiano – a lesson in delicious simplicity.
Sometimes you end up regretting dessert (we ordered out of curiosity not need!) but not this time. A lightly smoky chocolate and earthy-sweet coffee mousse was served with a creamy, toasty-flavoured malted milk sorbet and crispy caramelised barley. Just add coffee and you’re in heaven.
The prices at Orso are at the upper end of the scale for Adelaide which may put it into “special occasion” territory for some. Willmott’s, right alongside, does offer a more relaxed experience if you don’t want the finer dining option and serves food all day from breakfast through to lunch and dinner.
Ursini’s empire is set to expand even further soon with Villetta Porcini, an intimate dining experience at his Mylor property due to open before the end of the year.