Going to the Messina Creative Department in Darlinghurst is – hands down – one of the most delightful things you can do in Sydney.
You walk in wondering, “is a seven-course dessert degustation really a wise move?” and walk out so cheerfully light-headed and un-anchored by gravity that you could basically be a balloon float.
Not that this happiness blast should be such a surprise. This venture is by Gelato Messina, after all, a business that deserves hall-of-fame honours for keeping Sydney smiling wildly since that first scoop of coconut and lychee gelato was served in 2002, at the original Darlinghurst location. (The gelateria then hooked us in with wide-ranging flavours such as Pavlova, Elvis The Fat Years, Apple Pie, Robert Brownie Jr and Bananageddon, as well as creations that resemble risotto, roast turkey dinners, hot chips and Game of Thrones characters.)
The Messina Creative Department is actually located next to Gelato Messina’s OG flagship store, in a shopfront that has had many lives (most recently, it was a build-your-own sundae bar – no hard hat required), but since April, it’s been an eight-seater that’s serving frozen dessert spectaculars by the Messina team, with two sittings a night.
The idea of a fine-dining-style gelato tasting menu has been a long-fermenting concept – Messina founder Nick Palumbo mentioned it to me when I interviewed him back in 2011. (That was when Gelato Messina only had one location; now it’s got cross-border representation in Melbourne and LA, and recently three stores opened in a row over a few calendar days in September: Newtown, Tramsheds and Circular Quay.)
Sydney’s elasticated, unending interest in Gelato Messina can be measured in the queues that the growing number of stores attract (even in the most bone-freezing weather), so there’s definitely an appetite for a next-level version of the scoops and cones that we line up for. So it was excellent to see the Messina Creative Department finally launch in April.
I’ve maxed out my appetite on its seven-course degustations twice – I first received a media invite, for the week after its opening; more recently, I paid for Will and I to blitz through all seven courses, in honour of his birthday.
Each time was truly delightful. It was like getting password authentication into a wonderland of imagination-spinning desserts. Each intricate gelato creation deserves its own applause track.
The team behind this has a lot of gold-star cred. Gelato Messina’s head chef Donato Toce is, of course, one of the aces behind the menu and Nick Palumbo has wanted to make this possible for half a decade. But the chief creative is Remi Talbot, who returned to the company for this project. He’d previously been overseas in France, Denmark and Japan – in Tokyo, Talbot worked at Den, the Michelin-starred restaurant run by award-winning chef Zaiyu Hasegawa, known for his ultra-playful approach to food (such as his Dentucky Fried Chicken box, which is personalised for every diner; or his “earthy” dessert that’s presented on a shovel). As a nice full-circle moment, the Japanese chef happened to be in Sydney as Messina Creative Department was launching and gave it his unreserved endorsement.
As for the actual degustation itself – don’t expect an all-you-can-eat gelato mountain or anything like that. Each course is highly refined and thought out – without being a boring sermon or show-offy gesture. A sense of fun is the lifeline of Messina Creative Department and each dish has that light charge.
So there’s an “egg” that you crack open with a miniature hammer. The first time I smashed through this Messina dessert, white chocolate sake gelato spilled out of the fragile mannitol shell. More recently, the version Will and I tried was a Kinder Surprise of Burnt Vanilla Gelato, Umeboshi Plum and Portugese Port Jelly. While it’s a total joy to annihilate these “eggs” with a tiny hammer-headed spoon (made by that wonderful design kook, Marcel Wanders), it’s worth noting how incredible hard it is for the team to make these delicate desserts. One chef mentioned that for every 240 that he successfully creates, he breaks about 160.
There’s also the Almond Gelato, Potato and Brown Butter Cream, Porcini Crisp and Caviar that they call “our take on fish & chips”. It’s made with fried local porcini crisps, almond gelato from Sicily, charred russet burbank potato, brown butter cream and sustainably sourced caviar from the United Arab Emirates. (I had mine minus the fish eggs – and it was still ultra-savoury and excellent.) The smoky potato thins and brown butter definitely made me think this dessert might one day do a genealogy search, hoping to find out it’s a distant relation to the Bar Brosé crisp potato, brown butter mousse and salted caramel, served up the street. (They’re like doppelgangers that aren’t family, but it’s nice to see the connection.)
As you can tell from this dish, Messina hasn’t gone for obvious, sweet-tooth-luring creations. Many of the courses unlock flavours that have more in common with your condiment box or pantry, rather than the ice-cream freezer or confectionary aisle. The Goat’s Milk Yogurt Gelato comes with a spring salad of peas, house-made pine tree oil and white soy sauce from Kyoto. It reminds me of White Garlic and Black Garlic Vanilla Gelato with Tomato and Bergamot Gel Confit that I experienced on my first visit. Such unlikely combinations might sound suspect (or frankly quite gross), but they trip off intriguing, full-surprise flavours and demonstrate the wide-ranging magnitude of Messina’s menu. Garlic and tomatoes have reserves of sweetness that we don’t usually deploy in dessert (but why not?), while presenting strawberries (that are first dehydrated and then rehydrated) alongside a goat’s milk sherbet, for instance, is not too insanely far from presenting a cheese and fruit platter. The chefs here have just dialled up the flavours and redirected them down not-so-common paths.
After all, the kickstarter for both degustation encounters was a very bracing granita (purple basil and beetroot the first time, feijoa and geranium the second), finished with a strong drizzle of extra virgin olive oil from Cudgegong, NSW, all served in an ice bowl. It’s a ballsy first move and definitely, it feels like Messina’s way of resetting your expectations. This was never going to be a vanilla ice cream and Ice Magic kinda affair.
So, yeah, you might have a Jerusalem Artichoke Gelato, Caramelised Onion and Royal Gala Apple dessert, or Passionfruit and Olive Oil Sorbet, served with saffron sauce sourced from Tasmania and buffalo milk ricotta that’s made ultra-locally in Auburn. Not every course will hit the mark for everyone (it’s fair to say some people might legitimately find these combinations a little whacked out), but those left turns are what make the menu so intriguing.
Ditto the matching drinks, which are all experimental booze-free beverages. This approach was originally a makeshift move, to get around the wait for a licence, but in the end, the Messina crew decided to embrace the potential of going all out on non-alcoholic drinks.
I still remember a fantastic oak barrel bourbon caramel milk from my first visit and some OTT ones from my second round. Like the Da Yun Ling Green Tea (which apparently is found 200 metres above sea level in Taiwan, so apparently it takes three times as long to grow), which is crazily infused with kaffir lime and yep, truffle oil. That one was intense. There was also PS Soda with Red Berries and Spices, as well as Grapefruit, Chamomile and Vanilla Bitters and Fermented Honey Syrup with House Made Thyme Oil, plus an Orange Pekoe Tea that looked like it was prepared in the meth lab on Breaking Bad.
By the way, once you complete your meal (which might end dramatically with a ‘tree’ made of Los Ancones 67% dark chocolate from the Dominican Republic, complete with lemon thyme leaves and a root system banked in salted coconut gelato), you’ll score a range of clever petits fours – imagine an ‘egg-like’ sweet hatched out of condensed milk and cumquat preserve, for instance – and finally, to cap everything off, there’s a take-home souvenir.
The first time, I was given a jar of Messina’s take on Nutella, as extracted from its own hazelnut orchard and stamped with a serious company seal.
More recently, there was a jar of rooftop honey made locally.
So after seven courses (and a present to go), you walk out with such a turbo-boosted mood. Plus, the staffers are super friendly, very quippy (oh, their zingers are as good as their desserts) and happy to answer any questions you might have about their not-so-typical menu.
And because you sit around an intimate table of eight – you do end up having overlapping conversations and kickstarting chatter with total strangers who are just as dessert-struck as you are.
The first time we end up sucked into a very hilarious conversation involving one fella’s dramatic relationship with a girl who had been on the dating show, If You Are The One.
Other tablemates we ended up talking to included a woman who had come out from the UK, so it was interesting to hear her traveller’s version of Sydney.
When Messina Creative Department recently travelled to Melbourne for a limited run of dates, there ended up being a wait list of 1300 people who wanted to try the seven-dessert experience. So, take advantage of the fact that you don’t have to cross state lines to eat here.
Gelato Messina has always been shorthand for fun, and this venture reminds you of the serious skills that the staff flaunt, while delivering you a good time around an eight-seater table.
It’s also a nice re-reminder of how great it can be to live in Sydney – and a night at Messina Creative would be an excellent “secret weapon” move to drop on a visiting friend who wants to do something ultra-memorable when they’re in town. (And if you are somehow – miraculously – still hungry after this marathon of sweets, you can still head next door to the place where our fixation with Messina originally began.)
Gelato Messina Dessert Bar, 243 Victoria St, Darlinghurst, NSW 1800 435 286 (1800 GELATO), http://www.gelatomessina.com/au/creativedepartment.