Bar Nacional

Larissa Dubecki
Channelling San Sebastian: Bar Nacional.
Channelling San Sebastian: Bar Nacional. Photo: Eddie Jim

727 Collins Street Docklands, VIC 3008

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Opening hours Mon–Fri 8am–9pm
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Licensed, Lunch specials, Outdoor seating, Wheelchair access
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Dan Szwarc, Scott Spence
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9252 7999

Australia is a nation hooked on tapas. Greek tapas. Japanese tapas. Even, on occasion, Spanish tapas. Our addiction to the term as synonymous with ''small dishes'' is in desperate need of rehab, but our embrace of a drinking/snacking culture ought to brook no argument.

Australians' idea of the tapas bar (the Iberian version thereof) still veers more closely to the restaurant than your typical Spaniard would allow. Bar Nacional, a beguiling little place anchoring a billion-dollar Docklands development, breaches the ideological divide by taking its cues from the modern tapas bars of outward-looking San Sebastian. There's a layer of complexity to the cooking that doesn't undermine the mission at hand: an easygoing place with a sinuous little wine list full of trend-setting grapes such as tempranillo, verdejo and viura, and staff who appear relaxed while paddling somewhat more vigorously underneath.

From the street, with its urgent cluster of seating in the forecourt of a Collins Square tower, Bar Nacional could pass for one of those anonymous coffee and panini joints serving office workers. Knobbles of charcuterie hanging over the bar are the first sign it's all about Spain rather than sandwiches. The ''restaurant'' part is really just a black leather banquette and pre-set tables in a semi-secluded alcove. It's more fun to go native, perched high at a bar table alongside pods of colourful armchairs that could be on loan from the year 12 students' common-room. It's a muddled space, but not offensively so; certainly a lesser crime to the Gipsy Kings on the sound system.

Go-to dish: Baby flathead and smoked eggplant.
Go-to dish: Baby flathead and smoked eggplant. Photo: Eddie Jim

Co-owner/food director Gavin Baker is present not in body but in spirit with the Josper wood oven, a new icon of the smokin'-hot kitchen he made similarly central to the controversially ill-fated Little Hunter. The chef coaxing its charry lick into all corners of the menu is Alex Drobysz, late of Daniel Boulud's Bistro Moderne, while the star power of the Collins Square-based hospitality group (so far there's also the smart little Long Shot cafe and a forthcoming Italian restaurant, Chiara) burns brightly with ex-MoVida baker Jo Barrett and pastry chef Shaun Quade.

Their collective fantasy of modern Spain is nestled in the bedrock principles of good cooking. Everyday fare such as boquerones (pickled white anchovies) and confit garlic on toast, lamb meatballs with the sour tang of dehydrated goat's cheese, or a delicious squidge of bruised-purple morcilla fried into a cigar, all over-deliver on their simple premise. A mild lawlessness creeps in here and there: the sweetly unexpected punch of a jammy grapefruit puree, happily absorbed by a classic chicken liver parfait with black salt; or the jamon vinaigrette with the Sydney rock oysters, which adds an intriguing porky whisper to vinegar, shallot and coriander dressing.

Fans of meticulous arrangements on wooden boards will be happy here. Parsley-crumbed pig's head croquettes raise the bar from a simple tapa with neat curls of pickled carrot, charry shallots, fresh horseradish and baby leaves, and don't forget the carrot puree and mustard vinaigrette - at $8 a pop, decent value. Ox tongue looks more rustic but has just as much technique (brining, sous vide-ing then charring in the Josper, since you asked; there's parsnip foam, toasty parsnip crumbs and some sort of sticky sherry dressing, too). And sometimes the wooden board becomes part of the cooking process - a plank of orange wood that infuses its smoky char into the baby flathead draped on top and arrives at the table smouldering. The pork belly, though, is just too tricky. The salt and vinegar dehydrated pork crackle is pretty righteous, but the blood plum (fresh, pickled, roasted), the almond and cashew puree, and the hazelnuts spills into overkill.

Desserts have a lot going on, too, but they're brilliantly original spins that don't deconstruct anything. Burnt orange crema catalana with almond meal biscuit and toasted fennel seeds is savoury sophistication; chocolate ''liquid cake'' is a fondant by another name, all caramelised white chocolate guts and bitter chocolate sponge with a lemon marmalade ice-cream. Churros? Get outta here. Bar Nacional knows when to follow tradition, and when to kick it to el kerbo. And that's why it ought to do well in a town so keen on its tapas. Yes, even Spanish.


The best bit A touch of Spain in Docklands
The worst bit Music needs work
Go-to dish
Baby flathead, smoked eggplant, $17

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