Docklands: admittedly not one to roll off the tongue for Melbourne’s culinary hotspots. In fact, they are not much of a hotspot. Period. High rise offices and soulless apartment blocks make for a breeding ground of business talk and the suited and booted masses, come nightfall? It’s practically deserted. And so, what are we doing here, in a steel and glass cube at 8.30pm on a Monday night?
I love Spain and I adore the Spanish way of eating; the informality of sharing an assortment of tapas or larger raciones over a long drawn-out period. We’re a long way from home though, Spain is almost 11 thousand miles away – Melbourne is, unsurprisingly, thin on the ground for tapas bars. Anticipation, scepticism… we bite the bullet and make for Bar Nacional, a cornerstone of the rising Collins Square development.
Inspired by their travels to Spain, and time spent in the Gastronomy capital of San Sebastian, Gavin Baker (The Fat Duck) and Pete Evans (Aussie telly chef) have devised a menu which is brought to life by head chef Alex Drobysz (db Bistro Moderne, Maze), who blends traditional plates with all the modernity you’d expect from this meticulously assembled team. Similarly to the development that Bar Nacional calls home, it would seem that no expense has been spared in getting the right people in the right positions – and, whilst we may still have reservations about Docklands, the authenticity and quality of the plates that arrive soon go about putting scepticism to bed.
I begin to waver on receiving the charcuterie board, the Jamón Joselito cured for four years, was melt-in-your-mouth soft whilst the contrasting hard Manchego cheese, the real deal. The portion size was spot-on too – enough to satisfy – yet still leaving you wanting, craving more. Other standout dishes include oysters with jamón vinaigrette, crispy pig head accompanied by carrots and horseradish, and an offensively good roasted baby flathead (served on a smoky wooden board, rich in deep flavour). By now I’m sold, and the award-winning (or so we’re told) burnt orange Crema Catalana – sprinkled with polvorón and crunchy fennel seeds – tops off our feast with lip-smacking assurance.
The space is sharply kitted out, a stylish colour palette with some nice design touches, if a little cold. Cured meats hang from an inviting central bar, and a mix of high tables and stools are dotted around; many with a partial view to the kitchen. We were two of only a handful of diners on a Monday night, the atmosphere not particularly buoyant, but to be expected. Not that any of this matters, the esteemed team at Bar Nacional have brought a real taste of Spain to Melbourne, there’s bags of flair, but none of this would work without stringent attention to detail, fine ingredients, deft cooking and a considered appreciation of the simple things. ¡Viva Docklands!