Alison Walsh – The Courier Mail, June 30 2007

I FELT almost hysterically happy. On a cool, wet night, as the wind whipped off the river that meandered black as a strand of squid ink fettuccine just beyond the window, I sat with a glass of Chianti in hand and a steaming oxtail risotto before me. How better to ward off winter’s icy grip than to huddle in Alto, a new Italian restaurant and bar in New Farm’s freshly renovated Brisbane Powerhouse?

The open kitchen radiated warmth across the bustling dining room, fitted out in bomb-site chic with chunks torn from concrete pillars, chipped brick walls with the paint partially blasted off, and concrete floors. Bare bulbs reminiscent of a World War II interrogation room dangled in the bar, while upfacing searchlights lit the faux retro bare tables teamed with white moulded plastic chairs. An adjoining deck with an exhilarating river panorama sported a strip of roofing that sheltered two parties of weather-resistant diners.

Owners Simon Hill, Jason Peppler and Rachael Duffield from Isis Brasserie and chef Pablo Tordesillas (ex Sydney’s Otto and Water’s Edge, Canberra), have devised an Italian menu that steers away from greatest-hits fare. The risotto, its flavour deepened by red wine and adorned with radicchio, was honest and delicious, as was our other entree of light ribbons of homemade pappardelle woven through chunks of rich goat ragu, which showed all the benefits of long, slow cooking.

In their wake came mains of char-grilled, succulent korubuta pork (from a premium black pig breed) snuggled on a blanket of gorgonzolainfused polenta; and hearty, short, spare ribs with mashed potato. By now we’d had enough practice to interpret the accent of our outgoing waitress, whose thick Glaswegian burr combined with the din meant we were often baffled by her remarks.

We wrapped up with paper-thin chestnut crêpes stuffed with ricotta and served with a ball of honey and vanilla bean ice-cream; and three triangles of ruinously rich chocolate and nougat semifreddo, which would easily have been enough for two.

Alto is not a fine diner: it’s noisy and buzzing and busy, and it’s meant to be that way. The food is excellent value, the staff are hospitable and the shortish wine list embraces Italian varieties.

The only downside is the no-bookings policy, which meant 20 minutes propping up the bar before a table became available. But in a busy arts venue, the idea is that people will pop in and out for a bite rather than being restricted to set times. Anyway, it’s quicker than a trip to Italy and that means we can go back all the time.