Sustainable. The communal table at Nacional lit by a fixture made of recycled bottles. The vases are large jars sitting in a wooden wine crate.
A great social success is a pretty girl who plays her cards
as carefully as if she were plain.
Everyone needs a good local. A place where you can prop up bar, or slink into casually when you're not in the mood to fire up the stove. Where you can mingle with mates and even impress a few from other burbs. Living in Port Melbourne we are lucky to live in the vicinity of a few pubs serving good grub at a range of prices, a good fish and chip shop, along with a smattering of sound Asian eateries and a decent Frenchie. But ever curious we recently tried two new ventures.
It started with indecision in one of our local pubs. Should we eat the bar food or a meal? Over a couple of beers, we surveyed the bar food and decided eventually that it constituted the kind of snacks that you might have with a late afternoon bevvie. Croquettes, seafood spring rolls, oysters, chicken wings etc. So after an enquiry and a table turned, into the restaurant we went.
The venue was The Swallows Hotel, which has recently passed into the hands of the Rubira family. They have a long history of running venues with a seafood bias in Melbourne, the last having been in Sorrento. Sound venues that have enjoyed a low key measure of success. The Swallows venue itself had been a bastion of the long wine list and hearty rib sticking comfort food, with lazy afternoons of drinking over at the boules court alongside the light rail tracks. But the last owner somehow couldn't pin down the long tried and true formula and eventually surrendered it to the Rubira's.
When we entered the dining room it appeared that the old Swallows clientele of retirees had returned along with the Rubira's faithful who looked as though they once holidayed in Sorrento, but now were getting a little long in the tooth for all that jazz. Most of the parties were celebrating one thing or another and twice we heard an operatic version of "Why was she born so beautiful...?" gush from the tonsils of one of the waiters followed by a smattering of polite clapping from the geriatric audience.
As the starched linen grazed our knees, the volume of chatter became deafening. The pub is small and retains all the genteel features of a bygone era, such a sea green tiles upon the wall, a dark wood bar and Victorian era plaster festoonary, crowned with incongruously modern lampshades. The windows sit high, allowing those at the tiny bar to gaze out to the park, but do not benefit those seated at dining tables, whose repose is dominated by a somewhat tired traditional colour scheme of burgundy, cream and forest green.
Our waitress called us 'Luv, luv, luv' repeatedly and the tenor waiting tables pointed us towards the blackboard menu. There was no paper menu. It was 8.45pm and the waitstaff danced the teeming room like a couple frenzied dragonflies.
After scanning back and forth across the wide menu, the thing that struck me first were the six breeds of fish marking the main courses, noting their provenance as all being from Australian waters. Each is available with your choice of beer batter, panko crumbs, fried, grilled or egg wash and are served with fat chips.
The remainder of the mains consist of the obvious - linguine marinara and seafood lasagne, to steak and the odd man out, a double cooked Peking duck. Vegetables cost extra - $8 a serve in fact - and a trend that I abhor in venues. Entrees were many and included salt and pepper prawns, crumbed sardine fillets, Bruny island oysters available prepared in a variety of ways ($3 ea) and oyster shooters($5ea).
I saw whitebait fritters listed as an entree and my mind was filled with many memories of these tasty little critters quickly fried to a crisp, lightly suspended in batter and offering a melt in the mouth moment of fishy paradise. What a marvellous summer dish, but I couldn't have made a poorer choice. All fantasies of deliciousness were dashed on their arrival.
A fat omelet, not a fritter, sat on my plate cut into quarters. The first piece did not contain fish. It was thick, fluffy egg with the occasional lashing of chilli fire. The second piece contained what appeared to be freshly hatched threadlike white bait, resembling over sized sperm. But they were so swamped by the egg that had it not been for their tiny eyes and white flagellum I might not have been aware that they had been added at all. It was stodgy and not what I had ordered.
I was not a happy camper. I sipped my glass of Red Claw pinot gris smouldering with ire; underwhelmed. 'It should be listed as an omelet, not a fritter, on the menu', I said to Mr Stickyfingers, my eyes narrowing with frustration. 'That. Was. Not. A. Fritter!' It really was not what I had felt like eating, it neither met nor exceeded my expectations. And it did not bode well for the rest of the meal.
The mains arrived and quite frankly they were serviceable but nothing to write home about. Mr Stickyfingers Seafood Linguine was a little too dominated by chilli and was sitting in a watery coral coloured pool of fish stock, tomato water and spices. The seafood itself was fine, but the dish was lacklustre. The linguine itself reeked of dried commercial pasta with nothing to recommend it, the sauce was thin, unlike the anticipated unctuousness of a pasta that is either lightly slicked with olive oil or clinging to an unctuous sauce.
My garfish came as five plump fillets pan fried - not grilled as requested. I am accustomed to having garfish whole and felt slightly bereft at the homogenised experience. Plated with lemon and a not excessively piquant Tartare sauce studded with chives, a small bowl of wedge shaped brown chips - that were a little well done - were set to one side. So much potential, so little delivered, I thought.
The best thing of the night was the spinach and pine nut salad dressed with sesame oil and soy, then studded with an ant sized dice of bacon and teeny-weeny pine nuts. When the bill came, we found that per head it was slightly more than our bill at Nacional, but over all a significantly less satisfying experience.
Mr Stickyfingers said that given the choice, he would prefer to return to Nacional and not Swallows. I have to agree, I have no desire to visit Swallows again under the current owners, but I can see that there is a market for this kind of place, particularly with an older, mainstream customer who doesn't really like the taste of fish or the navigation between bones, skin and flesh that comes with it. For us, to add insult to injury, the following day, Mr Sticky had gastro.
So what is Nacional? And why did we like it?
Nacional is located in a new commercial building on a residential street in Middle Park - though the address details claim the more fashionable Albert Park.
Fronting the main street it is a provedore, with a bistro attached that runs around the corner along Herbert Street. The decor is Modern Rustic, it's casual yet considered, and while floor to ceiling glass dominates it still retains a certain intimacy. There's no twee brocante or Victorian era bric-a-brac to clutter the space, yet it feels honest and earnest without being self conscious. I felt right at home there.
We arrived post theatre one Monday night after meaning to try their dinner service for ages. It was getting toward 9pm and wasn't busy, but the kids were still on school holidays at the time. We were seated near the back door overlooking the communal table - a popular spot at breakfast time.
Nacional has been up and running for about 6months, so we were confident that they would have hit their stride. Like Swallows, it has a good pedigree. The owners also ply their trade at the formidable Syracuse and were involved in the 'poor man's Press Club', known as Mini - a modern Greek venue. The chef Leena Monson was transplanted from Syracuse along with the resources of that venue's cellar.
Like Mini and Syracuse you have a choice of small plates to share, but there is the flexibility of having traditionally structured courses too. Surprisingly there is also a kids menu of things such as fish fingers, a mark of a business that knows their locale and potential clientele - being an added enticement at lunchtime for the packs of local braying Yummy Mummies who dispatch their offspring from the ubiquitous, badly parked SUV's and for working parents who need a quick meal out with the kids.
It was a tough call on what to choose from the menu and blackboard specials, so much sounded appealing and the emphasis on SOLE ingredients made it all the more enticing. Between four diners we each chose two small plates. Firstly through the kitchen hatch came some piadina, and then the table began to fill with dishes.
Softshell crab dusted in blue corn semolina and deep fried, hovered over a corn based salsa. Softshell crab is often battered or crumbed but this had a different spin and was very subtle in flavour. The squishy crab meat contrasting well with the crisp, slightly gritty crust and tangy succulence of the Mexican style salsa with grapefruit and avocado worked for me but not so much for my dining companions.
Duck confit on crisp triangles of flat bread felt a little like my Mum's eighties dinner party hors d'oeuvres and were hoovered up by the others diners, but the fish wrapped in pancetta was excellent to all, along with a rich, braised belly pork that came with crackling. Slabs of deep fried polenta sat stacked like railways sleepers and married well with a harissa mayonnaise and like the dish of asparagus cleared the palate between richer items.
The whitebait here were mature and like the softshell crab, dusted and fried crisp to fishy, melt in the mouth perfection. Then we followed with a home style baked apple with excellent ice cream and a chocolate pudding. By the time we paid up, we were replete, not overstuffed and the palates had truly been invigorated.
The cost was less than anticipated, and a welcome relief in these times. To bring that together with excellent quality ingredients that were deftly managed without being over complicated and matched with service that was attentive without being intrusive, made Nacional a big hit for us.
Quite frankly, this is an intelligently run business. In culinary terms, although slightly less progressive than Movida Next Door, Nacional is a similar type of experience - smart, small shared plates bursting with the joys of good provenence and creative execution. That is, without being wounded in the hip pocket after the suffocating feeling of being cramped into a dark space, while simultaneously deafened by the roar of the business.
Instead Nacional was relaxed, comfortable and restorative, while being free of fads and the kind of people who aren't there for the food, but just want to be seen. This unpretentious nook is a breath of fresh air that I'm proud to say is one of my locals.