181 Bank Street, South Melbourne
Chef | Stephanie Britton
Prices | Bar snacks $5-$12; tasting plates $8-$28; mains $10-$26; desserts $10
Open | Tuesday to Saturday 11am-late
Phone | 9078 8381
The verdict | Drop everything
We don’t often put the “drop everything” recommendation on our reviews, but I’m calling it on a four-week-old wine bar in South Melboune.
Bellota – a sophisticated, lovingly renovated space behind the façade of a two-storey Victorian terrace – is attached through heavy, expensive glass doors to The Prince Wine Store. That means there are 3000-plus wines to choose from to accompany your bar snack, share plate or meal.
I also enjoyed the most divine panna cotta. Ever. And that’s from someone who doesn’t usually even bother ordering this classic Italian because of the too-often disappointing ratio of gelatine to cream.
The reason I tried it deserves another tick of approval. Our host (I could call her a waitress but her manner was so welcoming she made us feel as though we were in her home) informed me, in a manner that was neither solicitous nor smug, that there was a superb fresh panna cotta in the fridge with my name on it. How right she was – thanks Jacq Turner.
The delicate, pale mound of sheep’s yoghurt, with just the tiniest addition of gelatine, baked to wobbly, silky perfection was crowned with a hazelnut, honey and red grape syrup. There are some stunningly good red grapes around and the handful scattered around this snowy knoll added an exquisite balance in texture and soft acidity. Panna cotta is not a technically difficult dish to make but the traditional “cooked cream” dessert often arrives stiffly molded and looking as though it’s been in the fridge for days. I doubt chef Stephanie Britton used cream in hers as the natural tartness of the yoghurt shone through the intense but not-too-sweet syrup and the vivid freshness of the dish was palpable.
Hafner is consulting on the menu, which is Italian-themed and wine-sensitive, and Britton is using many of the recipes perfected in the tiny kitchen in Gertrude Street. It’s soon to be Britton’s baby and she cooks like a young woman ready for this kind of motherhood.
The menu changes weekly, but classics such as the vitello tonnato are fixtures, and another example of simple finesse. The thinly sliced, meltingly tender just-cold veal is coated with a superb tuna-enhanced mayonnaise – smooth, creamy with well-balanced and carefully infused flavours – scattered with tiny caper buds and some lemon zest. It’s topped with a nest of vividly fresh rocket and whisper-thin shavings of parmesan.
Britton’s lamb Abbachio alla Romana, offered as a special, was noteworthy too. The milk-fed lamb, cooked low and long with quality white wine, fresh herbs and tomatoes was finished with parmesan and fresh breadcrumbs. It was a delicately textured, robustly flavoured dish, served with creamy slices of potato.
Our lovely host didn’t ignore my dining companion when it came to dessert either, offering a wedge of gorgeous crostata, an Italian baked ricotta tart with crumbly, buttery pastry and enlivened with candied orange peel, roasted pine nuts and sultanas soaked in marsala.
If pondering that selection and potential wine-room wobble cause angst, there’s a smart little wine list and the fabulous Ms Turner to get you through. The floor team here is led by Sylvain Taupenas (ex Vue de Monde) and there is some obvious inexperience in the room. But I’m sure that young man has been selected as someone who will watch and learn.
The Prince ownership trio has been together for nine years and long considered opening a wine bar and a place to hold its Wine and Spirit Education Trust courses. The renovation of the terrace, which had been used as offices, includes an impressive, modern kitchen, an airy upstairs space for vinous learning and smartly appointed bathrooms. A pleasant bathroom earns a final tick of approval.
Behind the facade of this former grand home, there’s a modern, monochromatic undertone – white walls and tiled floors, black furnishings and trim – that’s elevated by a stunning array of natural materials.Marble, jarrah and pale-ash timber announce big-budget expenditure. Dark wall panelling and an old wine press add retro touches, while curved timber shelves and a hand-built timber bar create a sense of timelessness. The fridge window behind the curved dark-green marble-fronted oyster bar adds a sense of excitement.