From the ridiculously good-looking celebrity chef Pete Evans, together with the man responsible for the legendary ‘beef on toast’, and chicken-skin butter with pull-apart bread at Little Hunter, comes Spanish venue, Bar Nacional, located at Collins Square, the new development at 727 Collins St.
Chef Gavin Baker (ex-Fat Duck…swoon!) is at it again, with inventive techniques, and flavours set to blow your mind and woo your tastebuds. He’s also funny, passionate, and despite being from North Carolina, does a great Cockney accent, mostly when the food comes out, when he exclaims proudly “innit gaw-geous!!” Manning the Josper oven and sending out seriously more-ish plates is Chef Alex Drobysz, who is ex- Bistro Moderne (Daniel Boulud) and Gordon Ramsay, and lovely bloke into the bargain.
My first meal at Bar Nacional was a Monday lunchtime, followed up with a long Friday afternoon/evening session, so I’ve managed to sample almost all of the menu, a fact of which I am infinitely proud.
The menu starts with a Charcuterie section, including chorizo, lomo (beef tenderloin) and 3 types of jamon, from Serrano, through to Iberica and all the way to the mother lode – the Bellota Pura.
In the name of research I did my utmost to slay much of the tapas menu, including
- Choricito – simple little sausages cooked in cider, onion and parsley
- Croquettes of charred brussel sprouts, with preserved lemon aioli. Definitely worlds away from the 70′s ‘boil and serve method’ my mother employed (hi mum, love you but they were RANK).
- Pan con tomate – simple but totally delicious toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and ripe tomato, then drizzled with olive oil and salt
- Morcilla – spanish blood sausage, and it’s a rich, strong flavour that should be embraced, with a good wine (no problem here)
- Patatas bravas – what’s not to love about potatoes?
One of the highlights of the ‘rationales’ or mains, was the wood-roasted fish. It’s the first time I’ve come across this style of cooking in my travels, and I was absolutely fascinated by the entire process. I even got to sneak into the kitchen and see it being prepared. A trunk of wood is cut into thick slices, which are then rubbed with garlic oil. The fish is laid on the wood slice and roasted in the Josper oven, and when the edges of the bark catch fire, the fish infused with the ensuing smoke . The dish comes served on the wood at the table, with the edges still gently smouldering, accompanied by roasted eggplant. This technique imparts the most incredible, subtle but smoky flavour to the flesh of the fish, and at the moment the kitchen is are working with wood from 8 different varieties of trees, each with their own distinctive flavour characteristics – including orange and almond.
Whilst there we also managed to put away the prawns with chorizo and patates bravas, with peppers and fried egg, and the pork belly with compressed pear and mint. Again, perfectly executed. Speaking of perfect, there are 2 more things that make this place great. The first is the service. The staff are engaging, knowledgeable, and genuinely excited about the food, as well as the wine. Which brings me to the second thing – the wine list. In the words of my esteemed colleague and partner in many drinking crimes, @ladyoenotria, ”it’s BANGING!”. This is the work of sommelier and all-round nice guy Jeff Salt (ex-Golden Fields) who has curated a beautiful selection of whites and reds, including some excellent Cava (Spanish sparkling, or as I like to call it, Prosecco with a sombrero) and some heavenly tempranillo.
They tell me ‘postres’ is Spanish for dessert. At Bar Nacional, it actually means ‘food porn of the highest order’. With Chef Shaun Quade (ex Quay, Royal Mail, Urbane and Biota) at the sweet end of the kitchen, you know you are in good hands and in for a good time.
We need to talk about the Tocino del Cielo – translated to ’Heaven’s Bacon’. This is made with pig fat. Which makes it awesome. Salted maize caramel lies underneath shards of feather-light biscuit, and a lemon sherbert. Oh my sainted aunt. I don’t care where you live. Get up off your chair and get there NOW.
The bitter chocolate liquid cake, with green aniseed olive oil and lemon marmalade ice cream is nothing short of a party in your mouth. The caramel ooze that issues forth from the cake once you slide your spoon into it is smooth, and velvety and I would bathe in that goodness if I could. The lemon marmalade ice-cream is the perfect foil for all the richness – it is tart, refreshing, yet super creamy. I perhaps even recall being told it was made with sour cream, although I may have dreamt that whilst in my food coma. Superb.
There are some mighty fine Quesas (cheeses) on offer as well – we tried the blue cheese which was served on a wooden board with some fresh honeycomb, a perfect combination of sweet and bitey – my lunch date is not a dessert person (I know, what the?) so he was super happy to get stuck into the cheese whilst I inhaled all the cake.
On Friday nights they also have all sorts of excellent bar snacks – including the decadent chocolate churros truffle, with a caramelised white chocolate centre. This you must not leave without trying. And DO NOT SHARE. They also do a mean Sangria, made with D.O.C vino rosso from the King Valley, Dom Benedictine, citrus, cloves, and cinnamon.
Here are the Twitter handles of the main suspects. Give them a follow if you want to play along at home. Or better yet, get your butt on a bar stool and eat ALL the tapas. I’ll be the one drinking sangria straight from the jug. In a totally classy way of course. Ole!
Around a sweeping bend on a road in the Buckland Valley (near Bright, about 3.5 hour’s drive from Melbourne) nestled under Mount Buffalo, you’ll find Villa Gusto – a little slice of Italy right here in Australia.
Offering divine luxury accomodation, taking inspiration from southern Italy and filled with gorgeous rich tones, authentic tapestries and centuries-old antiques (and Bvlgari toiletries in the bathroom), Villa Gusto has 7 suites to choose from, all looking out over different parts of the garden, with views to the majestic mountain above.
The ornamental garden also includes a large chook pen (nicknamed the Penthouse) full of lovely brown hens who obligingly lay their eggs for your breakfast, as well as a big organic veggie patch, overseen by a super-friendly lady by the name of Signorina Fellini, a large silky tabby-cat.
We arrive for dinner promptly, as our host Colin has advised us the meal begins at 7pm sharp. If you’ve had a wander around the garden or taken a seat on the terrazzo beforehand to take in the view, it’s likely he’ll have offered you a pre-dinner drink, and some Prosecco is definitely in order.
The King Valley wine region is right on our doorstep here, and its cool, even climate is perfect for growing fabulous Italian varietals like Nebbiolo, Barbera, Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, Vin Santo and of course Prosecco. The first Australian-made Prosecco was in fact produced right here, at Dal Zotto Winery, and it’s easily one of the best we’ve had. Similarly one of the loveliest Sangiovese we’ve had the pleasure to imbibe comes from just down the road at Whitfield, courtesy of the delightfully affable Fred Pizzini and the team at Pizzini Wines.
But I digress. The dinner menu at Villa Gusto is thus: 4 courses, predetermined by seasonal availability, containing all locally- sourced ingredients, and based on traditional, rustic Italian fare, specifically from the south of Italy, and accompanied, if you wish (we wished), by matching wines.
We were treated to an apertura of shellfish broth, a recipe that had been passed down through the generations of one particular family in Amalfi, since 1864. This was a mouthwatering combination of vongole (pippies), mussels, a large bug tail, and a ladleful of delicate brodo. Even our non-shellfish-eating dining companion was moved to down this bowlful of goodness. This was followed by a housemade canneloni filled with local smoked trout from Harrietville, dill sauce, with black truffle (hello!) and flavoured with a splash of Vermentino, a white Italian varietal. A gorgeous combination of flavours, and the canneloni was a perfectly bitey aldente.
Secondi arrived – pollo di latte, which is quite simply, chicken in milk. But a Millawa free range chicken it was, and slow cooked all day so that it simply fell away from the bones, and served with a crunchy, crumbed eggplant slice, and some fresh steamed greens. There was a hint of chilli which warmed the cockles of my heart, and when enjoyed with a 2009 Vinea Marson Sangiovese from Heathcote, had the tastebuds doing the happy dance.
Dolci was a delightful combination of naughty and nice – some fresh local berries and nectarines, served with a canoli filled with local ricotta flavoured with limoncello (why not?) and a peach and nectarine gelato.
All the courses were spaced beautifully, leaving enough time between each for pause, reflection, conversation and digestion. The portions were perfect, the wines thoughtfully matched, and complimented nicely by some Sinatra swing, which had us all swaying and crooning (quite badly) by the end.
Whilst you can make a dinner booking without staying the night (the restaurant seats 22 comfortably), it’s hard to resist the allure of wandering down the hallway to your room to arise the next morning for breakfast at the very civilised hour of 9am to velvety poached pears, local yoghurt from the Myrtleford Dairy and freshly poached googs, with cherry tomatoes and asparagus picked from the garden, washed down with an espresso. La dolce vita indeed.
A warm Spring morning in Melbourne is indeed a thing of beauty, and even more so by the glittering waters of Port Phillip Bay. Zip over the West Gate Bridge, or arrive by bike or boat if you’re so inclined, and explore the glorious waterfront of Williamstown.
Its rich maritime history is evident, from the warship HMAS Castlemaine berthed at the jetty which is open to the public, to the canon perched on the grass facing Melbourne across the water, to the ship building yards and lighthouse.
Williamstown is also home to some varied and interesting eateries, and my favourite so far, with arguably one of the best breakfasts in the area, is The Strand.
On this particular Saturday morning, the terrace beckoned us with its stylish outdoor furniture, coffee aroma and menu of breakfast classics with a twist, including poached egg, served on lovely toast, and adorned with beautifully prepared enoki mushrooms with just a hint of truffle oil.
We also tried some fantastic home made hashbrowns, some seriously good hollandaise, bacon with relish, and eggs on toast. My breakfast wingman declared this his new favourite breakfast in Melbourne – and this bloke knows his eggs. The hotcakes were also a big winner with our little dude, and the coffee was simply excellent.
The staff could not have been more friendly, eager to please, and welcoming, and whilst we were there we saw a large group of older people, as well as couples, and parents with a stroller and in need of a highchair all accommodated with the same smile and service.
This is a perfect spot to stop, relax and while away part of your weekend, drinking in the glorious view whilst being seriously spoiled by the menu.