La Pinta review

A seat at La Pinta's horseshoe-shaped bar is hot property.
A seat at La Pinta's horseshoe-shaped bar is hot property. Photo: Eddie Jim

791 High St Reservoir, VIC 3073

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Opening hours Tue-Fri 5pm-11pm; Sat noon-11pm
Features Licensed
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 0492 818 032

You don't have to be celebrity futurist Richard Florida or a wearer of teal clothing to know about the power of the local. By dint of a certain pandemic, the neighbourhood has reasserted itself as the sun around which our happiness revolves.

So what makes the perfect local? For some people it's a joint they can happily return week after week, thanks to the alchemy of quality and price. For others it's a place where everyone knows your name.

La Pinta is that place for me in the first instance, and I'm committed to working on the latter.

Mussels escabeche. Photo: Eddie Jim

Chef Adam Racina (ex-Napier Quarter and Pinotta) opened this buzzy little tapas-y joint in northern suburban Reservoir in 2020. A native of nearby Preston, he cleverly divined that a young chef branching out on his own could do well ploughing the fertile ground of Melbourne's gastronomically unsung suburbs.

He's taken over an old espresso bar, adding pendant lights, greenery, a large horseshoe-shaped bar and a whole lot of heart and soul while keeping the endearingly deshabille character of stripped red brick and kooky mid-century murals – hello Venice on one wall, and an Aboriginal man at a desert campfire on another. Wines and preserves decoratively bide their time until their moment comes. It all lends an air of borrowed authenticity, as if someone has roughed up Bar Lourinha and deposited it in Rezza.

The only problem with the perfect local is that it puts you in competition with a whole lot of other locals. And my experience here is that it's wise to arrive not much after 6pm or risk cooling your boots on High Street while glaring at the people perched inside overlooking the chefs fanning the charcoal grill and the waiters pouring vermouth from the tap and passing plates of tortilla de patatas ($5) across the counter.

Go-to dish: Chargrilled leek with egg yolk.
Go-to dish: Chargrilled leek with egg yolk. Photo: Eddie Jim

As you may have guessed, the food is loosely Spanish. That tortilla and a burnt Basque cheesecake ($5) have earned their status as constants on the blackboard menu, along with a rugged house-baked sourdough bread ($5) with a caramel crust that cracks like a back at the osteopath.

The rest is a moveable feast made with produce drawing a straight line between farmers and diners. Like the mussels escabeche ($10), the mussels collected from Portarlington waters by a guy who lives just up in Preston, destined to loll about in a tomato sauce sharp with sherry vinegar and thrumming with the warmth of smoked paprika.

Or a little dish of house-pickled veg or excellent quality anchovies (each $5). A whole leek ($13), smoked then finished on the chargrill, is brushed with butter mixed with koji, toum (garlic sauce) and lemon juice then topped with a gooey egg yolk for a result that's silken and suave.

Skewered baby turnips.
Skewered baby turnips. Photo: Eddie Jim

It's geared for easy enjoyment, but a forensic examination will reveal an admirable commitment to sustainability. Produce is local and often less loved – like the skewered baby turnips ($8), poached then grilled to coax out their charry sweetness, and doused in a dill-spiked lemony sauce.

Or just pause to admire the crisply charry salty skin on the wild, native Australian salmon ($20) and wonder why we don't eat this criminally under-appreciated native fish more often, especially with kohlrabi and the electric kick of fermented tomato.

It's easy to compose a full meal from the succession of mostly small plates, served on mismatched op-shop crockery. Meat isn't a big thing here, but you can lean into winter with the grunty beef and mutton meatballs on a pine nut puree with radicchio and the deep, sticky sweetness of prunes ($18). They're familiar flavours amped to the lamby max.

Clockwise from top right: House-baked sourdough bread with mussels
escabeche, anchovies and pickles.
Clockwise from top right: House-baked sourdough bread with mussels escabeche, anchovies and pickles. Photo: Eddie Jim

Did I mention Regent train station is just around the corner? It's a sign you should outsource travel arrangements and give the wine list the respect it deserves. There's a Red Hill chardonnay that's zippy and fresh, a skin-contact chenin blanc from the Loire Valley that's dry and funky, and Two Metre Tall's cultish cider putting the artisan back into apples.

If you prefer your fruit in edible form, the short and snappy dessert selection includes a wodge of brown butter cake with quince incorporated into the batter in a sort of jammy miasma. It's $5 and they won't charge extra for cream, bless.

La Pinta has hit a bullseye with a crowd that proves the hipster-proof fence has moved well north of Bell Street. Sure, it means fierce competition for a scarce resource but I'm happy to risk the footpath wait. Because when a local proves as sustainable as its menu, we all win.

Vibe Warm, casual and low-fi

Go-to dish Leek and egg yolk, $13

Cost $80 for two, plus drinks

Pro tip Got a big group? The kitchen turns into two larger dining tables by night.

Larissa Dubecki is Good Food's acting chief reviewer. Besha Rodell is on leave.