Wilson (ex Radii, the Botanical and Quaglinos in London) has spent the past four years travelling, with time in California and Mexico. But the choice of the upbeat Hispanic-style menu at this St Kilda gastro pub is less about coincidence than savvy marketing by Wilson and Julian Gerner of the Melbourne Pub Group (Albert Park and Middle Park hotels).
We wanted to tap into the DNA of multicultural, colourful St Kilda and create a place with exciting food that offered a great dining experience surrounded by great architecture and music, Wilson says.
The Newmarket Hotel was a difficult venue with a chequered past, but we saw it as the perfect place to create something really exciting. We wanted an open-plan venue with a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces and food that went well with drinking.
The drinks menu offers California-style cocktails such as a Mexican Standoff or a Mayan Sacrifice and up to 17 beers and ciders on tap. There are 10 wines from the barrel categorised as house, table or fine, and served in rather dismal café-quality glasses. Theres a wine list proper available too, with top-shelf Champagnes and an impressive collection of mostly French and Spanish wines. Hopefully, they are served in decent glasses.
Wilsons tastes of California, with a wink to the south are proffered on a well-organised cantina-style menu with loads of depth and interest. Food-savvy Melburnians will love its word bin explaining Spanish terms. Some dishes are offered all day, others are available at dinner only. Most are designed for sharing.
Well-priced seasonal starters might include wood-roasted octopus salad with chorizo, pumpkin, lime and olives, and theres an offering of Hispanic cured meats such as Serrano ham and lomo (paprika-cured pork loin) with Valdeon cheese, or cantimpalo (Portuguese salami) with raw fava beans, mint and manchego cheese.
From the Latin Street food section, soft-shell crab tacos with guacamole, shaved fennel, spicy corn and tomatillo salsa demonstrate why Melbourne has gone troppo for Hispanic food.
Wilson imported a $15,000 Italian Vesuvio wood-fired oven. Its secret, he says, is the use Victorian-sourced aromatic timbers. Cocas (wood-fired Catalan flatbreads) are a Mexican-style pizza. A Serrano ham version, with artichoke, mint and fava bean, was well executed, well priced and great for sharing.
On a Sunday night, the wood-oven selection was a rare breed large black suckling pig, served with Mexican fried potatoes, caramelised apples, celeriac and a mustard remoulade. It was a superb platter of succulent sliced meat, potatoes and apples in a fabulous marriage of classic flavours and textures. Wood-barbecued meats, such as steaks seasoned with or without Latin spices, and low and slow meats such as beef or lamb ribs and pork hock are also worth a try.
Balmain bugs a la plancha (a Latin style of flat grilling) were a spicy, smoky delight, sprinkled with roasted nuts and seeds. An accompanying pumpkin-seed mole (pronounced molay) initially seemed superfluous, but with perseverance, it was a stunning combination. The mole is made with barbecued chillies, tomato, tomatillo, basil, mint, coriander and thickened nuts, dusted with sesame seeds and given added earthiness by dark Mexican chocolate.
Desserts stick to the Latin theme. An Aztec-style pistachio and chocolate brownie with spiced pear and a side serve of salted caramel was topped with a sprinkle of gold leaf. The square of delicate, mousse-like brownie and the spiced pears were very fine, but a heavy hand had salted the dulche de leche.
A New York bunker-style cellar bar, to be opened later this year, will serve high-end Mexican street food, top-shelf wine, upmarket tacos, roast meats and smaller plates of food, says Wilson. Start booking now.
The team behind this drop-dead trendy, new-look old pub has reactive fingers on the pulse of Melbournes dining scene and tables are already difficult to secure. Slick décor,
hot-to-trot Hispanic food and an insouciant personality delivered by staff oozing ambition will ensure its success.
Newmarket Hotel, 34 Inkerman Street, St Kilda
Phone 9537 1777
Head chef Paul Wilson
Prices Starters $14-$17; mains $22-$55; desserts $14
Open Daily noon-1am
Imposing concrete arches dominate the room, providing privacy for dining spaces and adding structure and Moorish splendor to the enormous space. The look, by architects Six Degrees, is St Kildas own retro grunge 70s-style black light fittings and swivel chairs, with garish chequered carpets, sultry Spanish dancers moving across patterned wallpaper and cornflower-blue ceilings. Theres a mishmash of indoor and outdoor seating spaces, from high stools and bar-style tables under yellow-lit cylinders near the entrance, to a chefs table with red swivel chairs for 16?under rows of hanging dried chillies, garlic and artichokes by the kitchen.