54 Tras Street
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 12pm to 3pm; 6pm to late (last order 10.30pm). Closed on Sun.
IT can't be easy coming up with restaurant concepts these days, when everything from Alpine cows to New Orleans revelry have been mined to add gloss and gimmickry to garden-variety European or American cuisine.
The latest in mutton-dressed-as-continental-lamb attempts to cross our dining path is Buttero - Tras Street's tribute to the Tuscan cowboy. No, don't rack your brains trying to remember the last time you saw an Italian gunslinger in a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western - or whether cowboys ever boiled pasta at camp in-between fighting Mexican banditos. Buttero refers to horse-riding shepherds in Tuscany, who have been herding cattle and looking after livestock for centuries, and there are still some around today.
In this context, however, it's just a fancy name for an Italian restaurant which can't decide whether it's a pasta joint, grill or American diner and settles for all three. And to make sure there are no territorial disputes over the menu's origins, an Australian chef is at the helm to maintain culinary diplomacy.
What ensues is a mishmash menu with no clear theme, although its anything-goes stance seems well-matched with its gritty-chic surroundings by Australian designer Barry Polson. Not quite cowboy, not quite Italian but tastefully funky, it stands out for its impressive wood-panelled open kitchen, quirky wall features and bathroom fixtures, and the large mural of an evil-faced pig-tailed girl by street artist Caratoes on the wall in front.
Whether intentional or not, the menu looks like a cheap diner menu in big font and loud colours, divided simply into sweets, pastas, entrees (appetisers), large plates (namely the grill items) and sides.
The starters, though, are sadly middling. A simple caprese salad ($21) promises a pop of Mediterranean flavour with heirloom tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil but is instead muddled with the addition of hard chunks of fried cornbread with a vague porkiness that distract from the already bland tomato and cheese combo. An intriguing-sounding raw black kingfish soldiers ($20) seems too much like an uneasy Japanese-Middle Eastern coupling, with sashimi slices marinated in olive oil and sliced chilli that you wrap in a stodgy chickpea blini. Even the pleasant sweet pickled fennel cannot strike a flavourful deal between the two.
Faring a little better is the crumbed veal taco ($19) - a crunchy patty of shredded (slightly mushy) veal packed into a soft taco shell, offering a satisfying mouthful of corn pancake, crunchy meat patty and sweet acidity of cabbage apple slaw to counter the richness.
As for the pastas, the pappardelle spanner crab ($25) is what happens when a Tuscan cowboy starts whipping up his famous noodles with tomato sauce and forgets that, being in the livestock business, he has no crab. So good luck trying to find any in this so-so melange of wide pasta strips tossed in basic tomato sauce. A "black and white" pasta ($24) of squid ink and regular noodles in clam sauce also falls short. And unless you've had some dental work done, skip the mush balls posing as house-made gnocchi ($21) and just eat the nicely grilled Brussels sprouts bathed in a citrus honey dressing.
That said, Buttero fares best when it sticks to what its name represents. Chef Logan Campbell (incidentally one of the most well-mannered chefs we've come across) shows a stronger affinity with meats, especially from the grill. He does a pretty good porchetta ($32) using rolled pork loin with skin that falls a little short of crispy but is nonetheless meaty and tender with a good whiff of its herb rub. Braised beans round off this hearty main.
The dirty steak is probably the best item on the menu ($34) - a flatiron steak is done rare between its charred exterior but yields tender, flavourful meat. Zesty salsa verde with yoghurt and a brown sauce make for a tangy trio and proves there's potential for this place. That and the waffle fries, which are not to be missed.
We also like most of the desserts. Not so much the sandy textured cannoli filled with powdery cream, but the light vanilla panna cotta ($12) with super sweet nutty meringue cookie, strawberries and passion fruit, and the sticky chewy chocolate pot ($12) topped with vanilla foam scented with rosemary and served with a delicate crisp puff pastry stick on the side.
Besides a refining of menu, Buttero could also use a bit of a kick in the service side, which is haphazard although well-meaning, and an inhouse soundtrack with more than one solitary song that loops repeatedly as if they don't expect anyone to notice.
It's hard to tell on a packed Tuesday which is half-price wine night, but like cowboys who know when a calf is missing from their herd, little things can make a difference.
Overall rating: 6
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good