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It was about 8pm on a Friday when the pair of hunter-gatherers made their way along the walkway, past the massive DFO complex, with rods over their shoulders and buckets in their hands.
Theres a structured, ready-to-impress, touristy feel to the location, west of Southbank, beside Jeffs Shed and the Hilton Hotel. The Yarra glimmers at night and the refurbished cargo sheds (some are still empty) add authenticity. So did the fishermen.
Bohemian, owned by Eddie Muto (Left Bank, Terra Rossa) and Chris McDonald ( Crabhouse, Brisbane, Bouzy Rouge, Terra Rossa) is a Spanish bar and restaurant at the southern end of the narrow strip of land and, that night, was a good vantage point for viewing the expedition. I didnt see them catch anything.
Its easy to be critical of a new restaurant development, particularly one with a deliberately diverse and slighty formularised offering of food venues. I can hear knockers, probably from north of the river, who say theyll never go. But the combination of prestigious operators who have set up along the strip of land at the shoulder of the Polly Woodside might eventually win them over.
At Bohemian, two Michelin-star Spanish chef Josep Espuga, whose list of credentials include Degustation, New York; Cal Xirricló, Balaguer; Mugaritz, San Sebastian; and La Broche, Madrid, was selected from 260 candidates over a two-month interview period.
Espugas food is a thought-provoking (if you are that way inclined) blend of classically executed Spanish dishes cod croquettes, tortilla, paella with a slightly larger offering of his own particular style. Sweet and savoury elements are balanced in each dish with an ardour he says was born of eating salted potato chips and chocolate as a child.
On the tapas menu its most evident in the Chupa-Chups de codorniz (quail-thigh lollypops) a line of tender, meaty little soldiers standing to attention, drenched in a salty, syrupy sauce of rosemary, thyme, garlic, onion, honey, sherry vinegar and soy. All of it slow-cooked in beef stock to form a thick sauce with the texture of caramel.
And it shines in his cochinillo (roast suckling pig) served as a compressed tile of meat partnered with onion compact, a pale sherbet-hued carrot ice-cream, a few spears of fresh asparagus and an orange nasturtium. The eight-kilogram suckling pig was roasted whole for 14 hours, with rosemary, thyme, bay leaf and coriander. Then we take off all the skin and bones with care, put the skin on the bottom of a tray, lay the meat on top and press it for 12 hours. Then its cut into portions and at the last moment we grill the skin flat to make it crunchy, says Espuga.
This high-ceilinged theatrical venue is draped in glowing autumnal tones and its young staff exhibits similar warmth, a laid-back sense of dress style and a cornucopia of accents. Theres a trio of sangria options traditional, strawberry and rosemary and blood orange and cucumber, a short cocktail list and a wine list that pays homage to Spain and Argentina.
There were three paella options the night we dined rabbit, a traditional chicken and seafood, and the paella negra. Espuga has added a fourth roast pumpkin and confit cod belly to the autumn menu. The squid-ink paellas shadowy Bomba rice is decorated with thin strips of roasted capsicum, wedges of oven-crisped artichoke and tiny puddles of a divine aioli. Flat segments of cuttlefish lay beneath its surface, adding luscious texture.
For me though, the sweet/savoury thing worked less with desserts. Dark chocolate-filled doughnut balls, served with confit cumquat laced with chilli and finished with a nip of Maldon sea salt, needed a side of cream to cut through the rich textures, and the citrus offering was just too intense.
Our second dessert arrived in a glass, looking like a cappuccino: divine white-chocolate foam was topped with black olive dust. Beneath it, a layer of blueberries blended with yoghurt, topped with two scoops of excellent mascarpone ice-cream. But I found it too busy and the black olives spoilt it for me.
South Wharf will probably attract out-of-towners first, and locals south of the river. I hope it flourishes. And I hope fishermen stay.
The Verdict Somewhere special
Olive-green tiles, wide timber windows, black metal furniture and terracotta pots holding brightly coloured flowers, framed by a wall of band posters, set the mood at this lively new diner. Away from the Yarra River breeze, behind the former cargo sheds, it could be on a laneway in Spain. The dramatic interior high ceilings, long rose-coloured velvet drapes, curved cinnamon-coloured leather banquettes and oversized wall mirrors has been put together with care. Recycled timber floors and a striking Calacatta marble-topped bar are given classic charm with carved timber bistro chairs, a central screen showing Spanish movies and low, moody lighting.