Acland St Cantina

'Mexican cheese fondue' with organic chorizo.
'Mexican cheese fondue' with organic chorizo. Photo: Jason South

2 Acland Street St Kilda, Victoria 3182

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Opening hours Mon-Wed 5–10pm ; Thu 5pm–1am ; Fri-Sat 5pm–3am ; Sun 5pm–12am
Features Gluten-free options, Licensed, Bar, Vegetarian friendly, Accepts bookings, Late night
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Seats 140
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9536 1175

Hype can be brutal. Diners rock up with preconceptions, a throwdown challenge that this place better live up to expectations - or else.

Big names add to the pressure. Acland St Cantina is part of the Melbourne Pub Group, which includes the Newmarket and Middle Park hotels, and high-profile players, including Brit-pack chef Paul Wilson and - until recently - Julian Gerner.

Does the cantina live up to its hype? Yes, and no. It's a cool, basement bunker in the Prince of Wales Hotel, fitted out by Six Degrees. It's a good-looking room - exposed brick, glass-jar lampshades, a Day of the Dead-style shrine.

Acland Street Cantina is a buzzy, subterranean bolthole.
Acland Street Cantina is a buzzy, subterranean bolthole. Photo: Jason South

The food is inspired by Wilson's two-month exploration of Mexico and Los Angeles, heavily influenced by the Baja California peninsula's Med-leaning Mex, Oaxaca for its mole, and Mexico City for everything else, including street food.

Hot crunchy baby corn comes with sweet coffee sauce - roll a cob in the seed mix for extra texture, and spoon on some pearls of native finger lime.

Next up, ceviche, served in a glass. Go Peruvian, for fleshy pieces of tuna sashimi in a tangy sauce of lime, mango, jalapeno and sweet potato, with crunchy tortilla chips. Or for the ''campechana'', a mix of cooked mud crab, tiger prawn, octopus and clams in a spicy gazpacho.

Too healthy? Hello ''Mexican cheese fondue'', a nachos-esque three-cheese bake with soft, organic chorizo - almost like mince - underneath hot, stringy, cheesy strands.

Cantina's lamb short rib empanadas are hardcore with cakey pastry, the meat braised in dark Bohemia beer and mixed with mole, making the filling sweet and rich. Fig black mole adds more sweetness, and you'll need the El Yucateco hot sauce to cut through it.

Did you know there are seven types of mole, all with at least 25 ingredients? The Cantina makes three versions using Valrhona chocolate and chillies that vary in sweetness, heat and smokiness. The tasting plate includes green mole on the pork rib, black on the duck and red on the pulled goat, the fall-apart tender meats, served on ''ancient grains'' (i.e., farro) or green rice. It's a hard dish to pretty up and the visuals didn't necessarily put the ''ole'' into ''mole''.

One big clanger: the wood-barbecued chilli chicken was lukewarm. It looked great - four portions on a banana leaf, with translucent radish, the chicken marinated in achiote, cumin and allspice, then cooked sous-vide, then barbecued, reheated, and finished with tamarind and cumin syrup. Once again, quite sweet, with low chilli voltage.

You can eat well for $30 at Cantina, but prices can push the boundaries.

See, hype. I'm probably judging Cantina more harshly than I would a first-timer. There were food highlights, service was sharp, and it's a good, late-night bunker.

Do … make a booking; and order the heirloom striped zucchinis. Vegetables never tasted so good.
Don't … miss cocktail happy hour from 10pm (pitchers $25 or ''today's temperature'').
Dish … Organic chorizo.
Vibe … Buzzy, subterranean bolthole.