Every Spanish style restaurant we have dined in since has had to compete against those memories, and all have fallen short, although an impromptu light lunch at MoVida Aqui some time ago was easily good enough to warrant a more thorough test that regretfully has not yet taken place.
So it is opportune that our latest invitational dinner is to a revamped AUSTiNS at the Mt Erica Hotel in Prahran, a new venture by a MoVida alumnus, Sunny Gilbert, formerly the Head Chef at MoVida Next Door.
Argentian style slow-roasted and smoked lamb
Many people have fond memories of AUSTiNS (including one of our fellow invitees). Up until late last year it was a typical suburban pub bistro hailing from the ‘gastropub’ movement of the early 1990s. Steak, burgers, and chicken parma were prominent on the menu (all served with chips). A TAB and crowd-favourite beers on tap completed the picture and cemented in patrons’ minds exactly what type of experience they could expect – and it was loved for its familiarity.
While the décor is still fundamentally ‘modern bistro’ – smart, comfortable but largely unremarkable – the parma has been banished, replaced by a focus on Spanish and Mediterranean influences using fresh seasonal produce. The TAB is gone and the wine list has been rejuvenated from both local and overseas suppliers. But not all is lost – you can still get hamburgers from the bar next door at billies, where Sunny also holds sway and has promised to provide the best hamburger in Melbourne. Clearly a claim to be tested later this year.
From the outside, AUSTiNS appears an undistinguished extension to a late Victorian-era two-storey pub and we have to look carefully to determine where we need to be. Large folding doors allow almost the entire street front to be opened up directly onto the footpath, giving the feel of an outdoor venue – revealing both the restaurant and the associated AUSTiNS Pantry and Wine Bar, which offers a selection of house-baked breads, fine deli items and wines. Seated on bar stools at benches in the open doorways it is pleasant with not much passing traffic, but heavy traffic could make it uncomfortable. However, once the food starts arriving all thoughts of outside disturbances recede.
An auspicious opening course is a Deli platter of meats from the Pantry. Some are house-made, but most are imported from Europe and are of the highest quality. This selection comprises La Boqueria Fuet Anis (Catalonian salami seasoned with fennel), La Boqueria Morcon Ahumante Picante (Smoked pork salami with chilli, garlic, paprika and nutmeg) and Jamon Serrano (Dry-cured Landrace white pig from the mountains). It is excellent, especially the Jamon, accompanied by caper berries and cornichons, with fantastic house-baked bread.
This is followed by tinned sardines (Sardinas Picantes) and tinned tuna (Ventresca de Bonito del Norte). Yes, this is not an error – what self-respecting restaurant would serve tinned fish and not even try to disguise the fact by at least taking it out of the tin before serving it? We are a bit taken aback, but the quality of these tinned fish is superb! I have now discovered where we can buy them close to home, and the normal supermarket brands are going to disappear from our kitchen pantry.
Our tables for the rest of the evening are now ready and we are escorted past a comfy lounge area with a large fireplace (mental note to return in winter) to the rear of the restaurant for the tapa-fest to continue. One by one they come…
Anchoa is a single anchovy with goats curd, capers, and tomato gazpacho jelly on thin toast that evokes memories of a similar highlight from our MoVida Aqui lunch. It is a tiny bit oily (as you would expect of an anchovy), but wonderful nevertheless.
Brandade de bacalao is, in form, a Spanish version of a Scotch egg, but in taste very different, with a just-cooked quail egg (with runny yolk) encased in a salt cod béchamel, crumbed and fried. Bilby happily devours the creamy delight, as do I, but I would also like to try a version with a slightly stronger flavour contribution from the salted cod.
Blue Swimmer Crab is delicate pieces of crab served with crisp shards in a corn puree. I forget to ask what the shards are, but their crunch perfectly combines with the fresh crab and corn flavours to produce a marvellous mouthful.
Diamond Clams are perfectly cooked New Zealand clams in a Basque green sauce. Shellfish bliss. Bilby mopped up every drop of the Basque green sauce with some more of the house-made bread – even though she knew that there was a lot more food to come.
All of these tapas, although individually small, could easily combine to provide a substantial meal, but the ‘main’ courses are still to come. Thank goodness they are being provided as share plates.
A good-sized fillet of snapper, impeccably grilled with a crisp skin and served in a saffron fish broth with lemon juice and butter comes with a smattering of fresh peas. I am quibbling here, but the broth seems just a little too rich for the fish, or maybe it’s just because we’ve enjoyed so much good food and flavours already.
Exceptionally tender and delicious Wagyu rump char grilled (rare) with horseradish is served with Assadillo, a salad of tomato and roasted red peppers. As an alternative to our current feast, I can easily imagine having a very satisfying dinner of just these two dishes augmented by a plate of Patatas Bravas (fried potatoes, mojo picon and aioli). This time we didn’t get to try the Patatas. Maybe next time … (Anyone for steak, chips and salad, Spanish style?)
The Wagyu would be a fitting savoury finale, but then comes the best roast lamb we have tasted since that almost mythical banquet back in Madrid, accompanied by an exquisitely dressed simple green salad. The lamb has been slow roasted and smoked, Argentinian style. It is pink, tender and juicy, with a lovely smoky overtone (refer first photo).
How could you match a dessert to the explosion of savoury flavours we have just experienced? Certainly not with something that is overly sweet or rich. Sunny chooses to further delight our taste buds with large, tender and tasty fresh grilled figs, complemented with honeycomb, port soaked currants and crème fraiche. I love eating figs fresh from the tree, but these figs taste even better. Sunny is keeping his supplier a closely guarded secret.
One final dramatic flourish: flambé liqueurs, fruit and coffee in a large bowl, flaming the fruit skins above the bowl to caramelise and intensify the fruit flavours. Serve in nip-sized portions. This was unfortunately not to my taste, but others were enjoying it immensely. I enjoyed the theatre.
VerdictWe loved it and Bilby is already planning a return visit. We also have to test the burgers, and the thought of basking in the glow of the fireplace in the middle of a Melbourne winter is very tempting.
OverallFantastic food and great, friendly service. BYO good friend(s) for a perfect evening. AUSTiNS offers a selection of share menus at $35, $50 or $90 per person and a la carte.
Note that AUSTiNS has a sizable off-street car park accessed from High Street.
Find it atAUSTiNS at Mt Erica Hotel
420 High Street Prahran (corner Williams Road)
Phone: 9529 5770