PICTURES \ DARRIAN TRAYNOR
I love a visit from the chef when I’m dining. It personalises the food, makes it special and helps me appreciate the hands that prepared it.
On a quiet Sunday night, as virtually the only diners in this quaint, welcoming restaurant, we received three smiling, enthusiastic, out-of-the-kitchen appearances from Manuel Villegas as we savoured his nine-course degustation.
Was it obvious we were reviewing his food? Possibly. Was his zeal reserved for diners interested enough to invest their time in so much of his food? Likely. Or was it that the unpopulated restaurant allowed him the time to venture out of the kitchen. Certainly.
I don’t know if all diners receive a visit. But go to Rhone anyway. It’s the sort of local that deserves attention. I’d like to think that the quiet night was an aberration (there was only one other group of four diners, who stayed for a single course) and I’ll be doing a few drive-bys to confirm that, if just for myself.
Villegas joined owner Lee Glasgow at his Spanish-themed restaurant in May. Glasgow has been running the restaurant – his first – since 2010. The Spanish-born Catalan chef, who ran restaurants and a nightclub on the Costa Brava, has been in Australia for the past two years. He was head chef at Garcia & Son in Windsor in early 2011, then headed to city siblings Hairy Canary and Hairy Little Sista as executive chef.
Glasgow, who manages the restaurant with charm and composure, spent a decade living and working around the Mediterranean and has held managerial roles in restaurants, gastro pubs and cocktail bars in Melbourne, Perth and Queensland. He renovated the building himself, adding to it as time and finances allowed. The result is a personable, relaxed space suited to intimate and rowdier occasions.
There are 18 dishes in the tapas section, plus five paella options and a selection of cheese and charcuterie offerings. We opted for the nine-course degustation as this seemed a comprehensive coverage of the menu. At $70 per head it was fabulous value and good theatre too.
Our entertainment began with perhaps the best eye candy of the night. It was a golden disc of delicate deep-fried cheese, coated in a dense almond crumb sitting on a square white plate, dressed with whorls of dark, sticky red-wine jus and a few dollops of vivid, perfectly tart tomato jam. I found the almond crumb a little heavy for the cheese, but I think many would enjoy the contrast. It was a fabulous start that showed Villegas’ masterful “saucery”.
Galician scallops – shells brimming with a luscious marriage of leek, Serrano ham and scallops – were classic flavours of the coast and a demonstration of the chef’s origins. Garlic and chilli prawns arrived third, still sizzling. The perfectly poached crustaceans simmered gently to eating temperature, heady with the aroma of the bulb and the fire of the pod.
Grilled sardines and deep-fried calamari followed. The well-treated fish accompanied by a divine whipped lime aïoli and the flour-dusted squid paired with a creamy lemon-and-garlic dipping sauce.
Quality produce, well treated, and good menu fillers.
The wine list featured a well-priced selection of European and Australian wines. As befitting a tapas-style diner, many of them are available by the glass. We began with a Zinio Cava from Spain and a Cool Woods Pinot Gris (Eden Valley), then followed up with a slightly spritzy Plainas Vinho Verde (Portugal).
Grilled chorizo, made to the chef’s recipe, was our next moment of visual pleasure. The spicy, dense sausage sat atop strips of roasted capsicum and a finger of grilled, spongy bread. It was prettily stacked and held together by a bow-topped bamboo skewer. Crumbed lamb cutlets followed, served with a terrific rosemary and Romesco sauce.
The final course, which saw our second visit from the chef, was small rectangles of crisp-roasted pork belly, resting on sweet roasted apple, dressed with another excellent jus.
Dessert choices included churros (always a must for my dining partner), a Catalan flan, chocolate mousse and a kaffir lime-coconut sorbet, served with pineapple sauce (my choice).
The churros arrived on a wooden board with a small glass of dark-chocolate dipping sauce and the sorbet, dressed with dried pineapple “fans”, arrived in a deep, white bowl, with a jug of the pale-yellow liquid. The chef delivered the churros and watched as the finishing touch was poured over my sorbet, proudly announcing we were the first customers to try this dish.
That can make you feel pretty special too.
Rhone Wine & Tapas, 125 Victoria Street, Albert Park
Cuisine \ Modern Spanish
Chef \ Manuel Villegas Owner \ Lee Glasgow
Prices \ Tapas $4-$14.5; paella $18-$44; dessert $3-$9.50
Open \ Tue-Wed 5-11pm; Thur-Sat 5pm-late; Sun noon-10.30pm
Phone \ 9682 2388
The Verdict \ Somewhere special
Soothing cloud-grey walls highlighted with balmy red panels give this genial interior its dominant palette, which has been enhanced by textured fabric drapes and low-hanging lights. There’s a rustic village feel, given authenticity with bare timber floors and worn straw matting. Furniture is kept dark and slick, with cocoa-toned, high-backed padded chairs, walnut timber-veneer tables and screens that divide the room. Little touches such as Spanish-themed artworks, cast-iron wall decorations, rolls of brown paper highlighting menu choices and a cosy couch setting beside a mock fireplace add personality and charm.