Restaurant Reviews

Añada, Melbourne restaurant review

Añada has a winning way with food and wine, not to mention its warm welcome, says John Lethlean, and much of it has to do with its predilection for specialty produce.

By John Lethlean

If the rise of the informal, enoteca-style wine and food bar in Melbourne over the past few years has a logical parallel - beyond the simultaneous growth in specialist wine importers from Europe - it is that of the niche producer.

The small - almost invisible to the public - artisans who knock on the back doors of the city's restaurants to sell a product that, with little effort, can make chefs look not just good, but great. And we're not merely talking about the invasion of Spanish and Italian hams, or other imported ready-to-eat foodstuffs either.

No, we're talking about people like Tom Cooper, a quietly spoken Canadian whose sublime smoked and cured fish products (mostly, but don't discount the odd tomato, another major hit with our city's elite cooks) feature on so many menus around town where the time and resources it takes to add value to the menu in this way, in-house, simply doesn't make economic sense. Cooper is a kind of outsourced chef to some of the very best.

He and his fraternity - people such as the Rodriguez Bros in Sydney with their Spanish sausages, or the women behind Holy Goat fresh curd cheeses, or the folk at Woodbridge with their sublime smoked ocean trout - make small-budget, small-kitchen operations shine.

I'm pondering their art and important role perched at the back table of Gertrude Street's Añada: a high, communal slab of solid timber set with broad-based bar stools that afford a very handy, elevated view of the entire place, not that there's that much of it.

There are tables and a banquette around the entrance, a long copper-topped tapas bar with stools and high tables for two on the other side of the 'corridor'. And the shared space at the rear. It can seat maybe 45 people in winter if you discount the funky Fitzroy footpath.

Picture the scene: a bowl of chef Jesse Gerner's wonderfully addictive, salty, house-made sourdough toast; a pot of fruity Spanish olive oil; a glass of Portuguese white wine (Quinta do Ameal Loureiro 2006 from Ponte do Lima); and a dish from the 'raciones' list, Tom Cooper's cold-smoked swordfish with ajo blanco and broad beans.

It is a seriously pleasant way to kick off the working week: a Monday night at what has quickly become, in the course of its brief life (Añada opened in February), the quintessential community food and wine bar. Inner-city Fitzroy has taken to Añada like a new Helen Garner novel, and it feels good.

The cohesion and welcoming management style of this little husband-and-wife tribute to Iberia has, in just nine months, matured and melded beautifully with its surrounds: a once bohemian suburb that still manages to provide a lot of alternative perspectives, even if the art-house protagonists of 20 years back have been forced out.

In their place have come well-travelled young professionals from the less mercantile, more creative industries. The sort of people who just can't get enough of Añada and all it offers in the way of food, wine and welcome that Jesse and Vanessa Gerner have learned at restaurants such as Moro and The River Café in London, and our own university of Español cool, MoVida.

Back to that swordfish, one of 23 dishes from the list of raciones that forms the vast majority of Añada's menu. It's cold smoked, so that the fish's texture and appearance really doesn't alter much at all from the raw state. But the art of the smoker is manifest: sliced thick, there is a marvellous musty, olfactory quality to the fish drizzled with fresh, zingy olive oil, a creamy sauce based on the recipe for ajo blanco (normally a soup of fresh almonds, olive oil, water, garlic and sherry vinegar) and halved broad beans.

It's a fine moment in a city that is just teeming with all manner of brilliant smoked and cured fish dishes.

Naturally, at a place that fulfils the social role the way Añada clearly does, you start with several tapas, which come to the table in a variety of simple, yet stylish, hand-made earthenware dishes.

Empanadillas made with an oil-rich pastry, rolled thin and filled with a fragrant stuffing of shredded rabbit. Chorizo from the aforementioned Spanish butchers in Sydney: dense, delicious and totally in love with the chargriller. Gerner serves them sliced down the middle, the 'insides' gnarly and charred too.

Or croquetas filled with a roux-like paste of salt cod, garlic shoots and sweet paprika-spiked béchamel, crumbed and fried golden. As anyone who has visited Spain lately will attest, the Spanish love of olive oil and deep-frying shows little sign of retreating, and Gerner takes his cues from his travels there in 2006.

Challenging to some, manna for others, a single piece of lamb's brain gets the same croqueta treatment, a golden, crunchy shell revealing the soft, hot brain. It's served with a noticeably cumin-scented 'paste' - for want of a better expression - of pork belly and red lentils cooked long together with garlic and coriander.

It's not all that pretty to look at, but that's not what this sort of eating was ever about.

The raciones list includes several unpredictable and highly successful takes on the Spanish/Moorish theme. On earlier visits, sardines cooked on the chargrill in vine leaves, served with a rough-chopped pistachio and orange-blossom sauce really impressed, as did a piece of creamy, za'atar-crusted pan-seared calf's liver, zinging with lemon, oregano and sesame, dressed with house-made yoghurt sauce.

Offal and eggs make a comeback on this menu and, again, it's ballsy peasant food: blanched kale and a braised sweet onion and tomato sofrito provide a sweet and savoury nest for slices of pan-fried morcilla - fat discs of sausage, also from the Rodriguez Bros - and two fried quail eggs.

Eggs with blood pudding is one of those 'a little bit goes a long way' dishes and although I like the concept, I like MoVida's house-made version of blood sausage a whole lot more than this one, which, to me anyway, smells just a little too much of the pork fat used so mercilessly in its construction.

Gerner is one of those chefs who does as much as he can manage within his tiny kitchen, and it's an admirable approach.

To cook his marinated quail, for example, he wraps the boned breasts in an olive oil-rich flatbread dough, starts them in the pan and finishes the parcel in the oven. The slightly lemony legs are similarly chargrilled before being served on a walnut tarator sauce. The tannic crunch of the walnut is just right with the inherently oily piece of poultry.

Tonight's last dish - cliché or not - is paella. Well why not? Done well, paella is the quintessential Spanish (Valencian) sharing dish and it is hard to find a good one, which is why I order one here, every visit.

Gerner's saffron and paprika-yellow bomba rice comes in the right kind of thin, enamelled steel pan with chicken pieces, prawns, cuttlefish and baby clams, all enjoying a gently sticky, caramelised love-in with the rice, red peppers and onion. Textbook stuff.

Desserts are a mix of the predictable and Gerner's own mucking about, but all are relatively simple feel-good finishers to a meal with assertive flavours and a nice balance of tradition and playfulness.

Churros, of course, come with the inevitable chocolate sauce to dip in and out of. They are as good as they are bad for you.

At the end of winter, a slowly-roasted quince with labne (made in-house) seemed a better choice, with a nice roasting syrup.

But if you were hoping for something altogether cleaner, and less cloying, it would be difficult to pass the combination of a tart, perfumed sorbet - made with pomegranate and orange blossom - and sugared pistachios, sprinkled over the top.

Still needing fat? The chef's ice-cream, made with muscatels and Pedro Ximénez, is the sort of thing children turn their noses up at, altogether too adult. In other words, really very satisfying.

In fact, 'satisfying' is an apt full stop to this story. Añada - an inner Melbourne attempt to provide the same kind of low-key, community bar with good, unpretentious food you'd find all over Spain - leaves a warm residual feeling, every time. It is emblematic of a new style of eating and drinking in Melbourne; tapas and Spanish flavour, minus the clichés. Long may their ilk, and that of their artisan suppliers, last.