I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve been seriously considering not writing this post at all.
If you follow me on twitter you’ll be well aware of my struggle to find decent food and coffee in Docklands when my work moved here 12 months ago. I asked, I scanned Epicure and Urbanspoon and watched for new openings like a hawk. I was first or second in to every new operation, hoping against hope that I could find decent coffee at least within a stones throw of work.
I tried places all over Victoria Harbour, Central Pier, Southern Cross Station,the Stadium Precinct and *everything* in Batman’s Hill. Nada. If it was reasonable food, it was terribly overpriced, or miles away. If the espresso was ok – the milk they used was awful. I’m ok with bringing my lunch to work, but it’s nice to occasionally treat yourself. There was also nowhere decent to drink after work; you know, relaxed atmosphere, good quality wine, ace bar snacks, good gin – not too many wankers.
But that has all changed. No really!
When Bar Nacional opened on Batman’s Hill (in Collins Square) late last year I dutifully tried the coffee. It was pretty good, their barista chatted to me, by day two he knew what I wanted to drink, and I knew that they were using Schulz Organic Milk. It could have ended there and I’d have been pretty darn happy. But then I went in for lunch one day in October with a colleague from the other end of town. We knew we wanted desserts because by this time we’d heard that Shaun Quade was working there (more on that later). The rest of the menu looked like a standard tapas menu. So we ordered a traditional kind of tapas snacked lunch. tortilla, albóndigas, grilled asparagus. Fresh, tasty and what I expected. But the desserts – they were something out of the box.
A liquid centered chocolate cake and a crema Catalana (a Spanish style crème brûlée) seemed fairly straight forward, but of course, coming from one of Australia’s dessert-mad genius’ they were anything but. I wasn’t allowed more than just a taste of the cake, but I had it again on recent visit and can attest to the addictive power of the lemon marmalade ice-cream and the flowing olive oil aniseed centre. Like it’s partner, the burnt orange crema Catalana with bay leaf oil and roasted flour shortbread, the flavours work better than they have a right to. Meta-moreish is about all I can think of to describe them.
There’s quite a few places in Melbourne that claim to be inspired by Spanish tapas bars, and San Sebastian bar lifestyle, but Bar Nacional’s version rings very true for someone who fell in love with it, and ate and drank all over the old town in an attempt to soak all that atmosphere in. Robust, uber-technically cooked meats are layered with spikes of seasonal vinegary vegetables, smooth spiced purees, and crisp juicy raw herbs and fruits. The produce is respected (if not venerated) and it shows.
The pork belly dish takes days, with brining, poaching and then crisping it’s salt & pepper crackling, before it’s served in tight cubes with compressed pear, yuzu and mint. It’s a dish I’ve come back for. It’s a dish to make you wish you worked or lived across the road.
I set up a couple of lunch dates to taste more of the menu, the jamon was calling me, and the terrine (well mocking me really, hanging as they do above the bar where I get my morning coffee). The charcuterie plate offered a taste of both the Jamón Serrano and the 4 year old Jamón Joselito. If you’ve ever been curious about the difference that ageing and diet imparts on meat – trying these two one after the other will certainly show you. There’s nothing wrong with the serrano, nothing at all. But the Joselito acorn fed pork from north-western Spain is absolutely divine. The rich, nutty fat melts on the tongue and coats the salty porky tissue thin slices in the most delicious way. Even a tiny bit leaves you satisfied with a long-lasting savoury after taste.
It was almost a shame to wash the remnants away with the decent rosado (rosé) we were drinking by the glass. The wine list is the work of Jeff Salt and there’s a great selection for easy drinking after work, or to sit beside a more serious meal-like evening. Estrella on tap makes a nice start, and I totally recommend the Txakoli from the Galicia with a meal.
After work drinks turn into a cruise through the vegetarian options, limited but delicious. Pan con Tomate uses Jo Barrett’s (ex Movida Bakery) excellent bread to soak up juicy tomatoes, potato bravas are handled traditionally and the cheese board brings again, interesting accompaniments like honeycomb with an excellent spanish blue.
The cauliflower pickle which accompanies the terrine almost steals the show. When something like this is done well, the balance and interest it adds to a meal can’t be understated. I hope to see a Bar Nacional line of pickles and chutneys to take away one day.
Even the Mount Zero Olives have been given the “amp up the flavour” treatment by head chef Alex Drobysz, and I’m now thoroughly addicted to them. I got a bit caught up with the jamon vinaigrette serviced with the just-shucked oysters that I actually bit the fourth oyster I’ve ever eaten to better experience the flavour of the jamon fat, wine vinegar and shallot.
I finally made it to dinner the other night, which was my chance to try the house special of fish roasted on fruit wood in the Josper oven, a kind of indoor BBQ on steroids. The edges of the wood catch fire and the oils from the fruit wood and a little bit of smoke infuse the fish. We had flathead from the Chatham Islands with smokey eggplant puree. I have no idea fish could be this succulent.. We started off carefully filleting the meat from the bones with cutlery, but in the end we were using our fingers to grab the juicy morsels from the plate. Good thing I was there with good friends! I did wish for an old school fish knife though to help with the filleting and sharing (look that’s my excuse for reverting to savagery, ok?).
It’s so very rare to find a place that gives as much as Bar Nacional does, from breakfast coffee and bocadillo, takeaway lunch rolls, a decent bar with great snacks, rolling it to a long dinner. The staff are passionate about what they are creating, and service is right within that Melbourne casual / professional vibe. Yep, now I’ll be sad if we move back to the Paris end of Collins street.
Just over the hill from The Age building and with practically it’s own tram stop outside the front door it’s well worth a small detour down the blustery end. And it deserves all the kudos its been getting and the $25 lunch deal is a good way to try it out.
Guess I’ll just have to share it with the rest of you now.
727 Collins Street
Batman’s Hill Tram Stop D15 Routes 11,48 and 31