By Vivienne Pearson
Jonsons Restaurant and Bar has won the Australian Good Food & Travel Guide’s award for Best Italian food.
The award, covering the entire northern rivers region and voted by readers, was both unexpected – because eateries do not know that they are in the running until the award is announced – and welcome, because it is testament that Jonsons’ move towards Italian cuisine has hit its mark.
We’re not talking traditional checked tablecloths, pizza and pasta Italian food (not that there’s anything wrong with that). This is modern Italian food.
‘Italian food has changed,’ says head chef, Alessandro Pizzolato, who was born and bred in Rome. ‘Modern Italian food is tradition meets innovation. Our bisques and stocks are made from the ground up, according to tradition, but the flavours, choice of produce and plating up are modern.’
Alessandro know what he is talking about, having trained in both traditional and forward-thinking two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants. These include La Pergola, a decadent restaurant featuring 45 choices of water and a wine cellar with more than 60,000 bottles, and Assunta Madre, a seafood-only restaurant owned by a fisherman, where he cooked for an endless stream of the rich and famous, including Robert De Niro, Sophia Loren and Roger Federer.
This does not mean that Alessandro, or the food at Jonsons, is pretentious. Alessandro, who is 36 and recently married with a young child, resigned from Assunta Madre to travel the world, working in Cairns, Bali and Perth before putting down roots in this region.
‘It was our last stop on a camper-trailer road trip across the wine regions of southern Australia,’ he says.
His influence as head chef at Jonsons has gradually tilted the menu towards Italian and his training shines through in the food (but luckily, not the prices!). I tried the Scorched Hiramasa Kingfish from the grazing menu (midday till late), a divine concoction of orange, pickled green chilis (taking away most of the heat), radish, Spanish onions and gremolata (a condiment of chopped herbs, usually including lemon zest).
The Asian influence in this dish – Hiramasa is the Japanese name for Yellowtail Kingfish – reflects Alessandro’s lifelong love of Asian cooking and modern Italian cuisine’s embrace of new ingredients and cooking methods, including sous-vide (French for ‘under vacuum’, also known as cryovac).
The result is a wonderfully moist fish served in a delightfully colourful dish with a full range of textures and flavours.
For those who simply love pasta, Jonsons will provide! The team have recently started making their own pasta from scratch. And I mean scratch. Key parts of the pasta machine are made of bronze, allowing for higher pressure and adding an invisible texture to the pasta, making it perfect for cooking. Special flour is imported from Italy and the dough is made using no water and only egg yolks. ‘At this stage, it looks like brittle crumbs and you can’t work it at all,’ says Alessandro, generously sharing some of his secrets. ‘But after overnight in the cryovac, you get a bright yellow, perfect dough.’
From this, ravioli is made, big pieces with ever-changing filings. On the day I visited, from both the lunch and dinner menu it was pumpkin and ricotta ravioli, served with lemon butter, capers, sage and hazelnuts. The pasta was perfectly al dente and the accompaniments provided a rounded taste sensation.
Tuesday is a Pasta Night, with extra pasta options available. Jonsons is proving to be a hit locals. ‘Last night, we served 90 meals and I knew almost everyone here,’ says owner Geoff Coward, formerly of The Balcony.
‘Nights are bigger than days at the moment,’ says Geoff. ‘Our next focus is going to be on revamping our breakfast menu to feature more local produce and more specialised options.’
The Australian Good Food & Travel Guide (AGFG) gong, which was awarded three weeks ago, is an even more impressive accolade for the fact that votes are cast over a year, yet Jonsons have been open for only half that time.
‘We really appreciate the award as recognition of our new Italian focus,’ concludes Geoff.
Jonsons, 111 Jonson Street, Byron Bay (next door to Red Ginger). Ph: 6685 6754. Facebook: @jonsonsrestaurantbar