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Bellota, Melbourne restaurant review

An assured and talented team matches wine-friendly food to a cellar of great booze and a slick space at new South Melbourne bistro Bellota, writes Michael Harden.

It could easily have been a dog's breakfast. Three owners of a venerable independent bottle shop (Philip Rich, Michael McNamara, Alex Wilcox of Prince Wine Store) decide to open a wine bar next door to their successful business despite having minimal hospitality experience. They invite the owner-chef of a small Fitzroy wine bar (Brigitte Hafner of Gertrude Street Enoteca) to consult on the food and the owner of a singular neighbourhood bar in Carlton North (Gerald Diffey of Gerald's Bar) to give them a hand with the décor. They then plonk all these elements together in a starkly modern two-storey concrete box crouching behind an original Victorian terrace façade in South Melbourne and throw open the doors.

That Bellota, the result of all this Frankensteinian patching together of assorted elements, has emerged with only the occasional dropped stitch or loose thread is marvellous in the true sense of that word. The marvel is not so much because all the players involved here have come up with the goods (their track records speak loudly for themselves) but that the whole has so emphatically delivered on the promise of the sum of its parts. Even better, it's done so in a refreshingly reserved and modest way. Far from feeling like the latest glitzy star in the Melbourne dining firmament, Bellota feels like it's been around - and could be around - forever.

Much of this appealingly calm and experienced vibe comes from the ease with which the food and the wine sit together. Prince Wine Store has a hefty, somewhat intimidating cellar of 3,500-plus labels riddled with benchmarks just through the glass doors linking Bellota and bottle shop, all available for consumption in the wine bar ($15 corkage on bottles under $80, corkage waived after that) it would be easy for a kitchen to get stage fright. But Hafner (a regular Gourmet Traveller contributor) and Stephanie Britton, her former head chef at Gertrude Street who now fronts the stoves at Bellota, hold their nerve.

Understanding that restraint, simplicity and well-pedigreed ingredients are the best response when faced with a deep lake of good booze, they deliver a menu bursting with great wine-friendly Euro bistro flavours that neither scare nor bore the horses, instead keeping them both interested and willing to hand over $30 for a glass of 2011 Giaconda chardonnay or $18 for a 2010 Domaine Coursodon Saint Joseph.

The menu certainly reads as simple, making all the right charcuterie-antipasti-oyster-steak-cheese noises, but there's also meticulous attention to detail in the mix, a real understanding of ingredients from olives to chocolate fondant that moves the food here beyond a safe checklist of greatest hits. Take the way the jamón is presented, for example. (There had to be jamón: the name Bellota comes from the Spanish word for acorn, the last supper of the best jamón pigs.)

Part of a nicely curated selection of charcuterie - salumi, terrine, prosciutto - displayed in an illuminated glass cabinet behind the counter like art or artefacts, the jamón (Ibérico de Bellota Puro Julián Martín) is hand-sliced to order and served with almonds that have been gently fried in extra-virgin olive oil and tossed with pink Murray River salt. The nut and meat combo is pretty common in Spain but less so locally, which is a shame because the slightly warmed crunch and earthy saltiness of the almonds is a toe-curlingly good match with the intense rich sweetness of the meat.

A similarly trad, mindful approach is taken with oysters. There are always two types (usually Pacifics from Coffin Bay and Sydney rocks from Moonlight Flat), which are air-freighted each week, shucked to order and served on ice with lemon wedges and a mignonette sauce. And it's there again with cold-smoked Woodbridge ocean trout, sliced to order and sharing plate space with capers, olive oil and a horseradish and dill crème fraîche.

But there's more to Bellota's kitchen than just slicing, shucking and scrupulous presentation. King prawns from South Australia arrive as a perfect beer snack, tempura battered, flash-fried, dusted with Spanish paprika and served with harissa-flavoured aïoli, while kingfish, cured in a mix of gin, crushed coriander seeds, salt and sugar, is teamed with a lime crème fraîche and a feisty little salad of pink grapefruit, avocado and coriander - a brilliant example of skilfully balanced textures and flavours.

Then there's superb potted smoked eel where the eel has been sautéed with butter and white wine, potted and capped with clarified butter before being served with a purple-black balsamic beetroot pickle. The eel and pickle combination bounds about in the mouth with sweet, salty, tangy, richly earthy exuberance.

Less bouncy than comforting, a potato and onion tortilla, rich and soft-textured with a bay-flavoured backbeat is, as a finishing touch, draped with thin slices of Culatello di Parma, the fat of which becomes meltingly translucent from the heat of the tortilla.

It's great wine-drinking food, bristling with cues from Spain, Italy and France, and is the most obvious reason why this place feels so much like a European bistro. But Diffey's design is also integral to the room's classic bistro feel. It's actually no mean feat giving this space, ostensibly a modern, straight-lined concrete box with windows at the front and back, such a distinct, comfortable and non-linear personality.

Anybody who has spent time in Gerald's Bar or the bar at Diffey's city joint, Brooks, will have little trouble spotting the lineage in the fit-out at Bellota. The curving two-toned timber bar at the front of the space, homely and well-proportioned, is a close relative of the one at Gerald's, and its shape and colour, plus the eccentrically shaped timber bar shelves with their diagonal support beams, bring a touch of old school Italian bar to Bellota.

There's further Italian influence, but more suburban social club than espresso bar, in the green marble cladding on the seafood display case at one end of the bar, while the small white floor tiles, white marble tables and dining area down the back, with its brown banquette and linen-dressed tables, is straight out of France. Diffey's eye for detail - beautiful, rounded metal lightshades overhanging the bar, a narrow timber shelf defining one dining space, the gilt-framed specials blackboard - rids the long room of any austerity and sterility, bringing a true sense of conviviality, especially when the crowds are in and the place is roaring (and yes, there are few soft surfaces to dampen the roar).

It's easy to get with the conviviality with food and wine lists that are so easy to navigate (the owners pull together a regularly changing glass and carafe list, plus a short bottle list for those not interested in combing the shelves next door) and service that's friendly, casual and mostly precise - well matched to the space.

And it's hard not to feel the love with dishes like a classic minute steak: a well marbled grass-fed Black Angus Scotch topped with herb butter, and served with fries and organic rocket dressed with a Champagne and mustard vinaigrette, or the benchmark vitello tonnato (a Hafner signature from Gertrude Street Enoteca) with thin slices of red wine-poached veal dressed with a superbly salty tuna, caper, anchovy, lemon juice, mayo, parmesan and Sherry vinegar sauce.

The odd lapse, such as a spaghetti carbonara surprisingly light on pepper (and, in fact, flavour generally), is only memorable because it's so anomalous. You'll more likely be asking for more bread (sourdough baguette from Noisette) to sop up the remnants of a wonderfully big-flavoured, nebbiolo-spiked beef stew served with soft white polenta and a nicely textured, punchy gremolata or a citrusy braised duck served with porcini and pommes boulangère.

The sweet stuff also sticks to the Bellota party line, keeping it simple, big flavoured and full of quality ingredients. If the panna cotta made with Meredith sheep's milk yoghurt is available, order it. The yoghurt is mixed with a little cream, sugar, vanilla and just a hint of gelatine that just - just - manages to hold the whole creamy, quivering, not-too-sweet mass together. It's beautifully textured and the honey, Frangelico, hazelnut and red grape sauce poured sparingly over the top adds just the right notes of restrained sugar and fruity acid.

An almond and olive oil cake that's steeped in a blood orange sugar syrup and served with cream flavoured with Meyer lemon curd, plus thin slices of blood orange, is similarly successful (and Italian themed). It's a masterclass in sweet-citric balance and is bound to become a firm crowd favourite.

Some might attribute Bellota's early success in attracting a crowd to its location in a neighbourhood where there's not much else going on food-wise.

And, sure, South Melbourne locals have flocked to the place like hungry gulls on a chip, but you could also mount an argument for crowd-pleasing food, an immense cellar, successful bottle shop or cheerful room and be equally correct. A unique collaboration between a group of people with distinctive talents, Bellota manages to feel both familiar and original.

It would be a success in any neighbourhood.

181 Bank St, South Melbourne,
(03) 9078 8381.
Open Tue-Sat 11am-11pm.
Price Entrées $8-$24; main courses; $11-$26; desserts $10-$12.
Vegetarian Two main courses.
Noise Boisterous when busy.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A poster child for successful collaboration.
Minus The 3500-plus wine cellar will give decision-phobes nightmares.

181 Bank St, South Melbourne,
(03) 9078 8381.
Open Tue-Sat 11am-11pm.
Price Entrées $8-$24; main courses; $11-$26; desserts $10-$12.
Vegetarian Two main courses.
Noise Boisterous when busy.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A poster child for successful collaboration.
Minus The 3500-plus wine cellar will give decision-phobes nightmares.

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