Docklands isn't a Melbourne suburb that sets a diner's pulse racing. Despite occasional signs of life among the massed apartment and office towers, the stories of restaurant failure and - worse - mediocrity in that neighbourhood have tended to find both food cognoscenti and hungry locals looking for thrills in the more reliable streets and laneways of the CBD. But now Bar Nacional is calling Docklands home there's reason to reconsider the option.
Admittedly its location - at the bottom of a commercial tower on the stretch of Collins Street linking the CBD with Docklands - doesn't inspire immediate confidence. At night, when the foot traffic dwindles to almost nothing, the area can seem spookily lifeless in a sci-fi, dystopian future kind of way. Walk through the front door of Bar Nacional, however, into an irregularly shaped room with a central bar, textured earthy colours and reassuring hanging display of cured meat and all thoughts of dystopia evaporate.
The cured meat is very good, by the way, as it absolutely must be in a place that purports to channel the pintxos bars of San Sebastián. There are three types of jamón, including the magnificently rich and sweet 36-month-cured jamón bellota puro, plus deep-flavoured lomo (cured and seasoned pork tenderloin), the dry-cured bull negro sausage and a very good, punchily assertive chorizo. All the cured stuff is sliced to order and comes in 30-gram or 60-gram lots, but going the whole hog and ordering a "charcuteria" selection is a good idea because you'll also get to try the admirably chunky pork terrine with its kicking cauliflower pickle accompaniment. The charcuterie makes for an impressive start, nailing Bar Nacional's Ibérian colours to the mast, but what follows is even better.
The reference to San Sebastián here is more than just a marketing catchphrase to romanticise slinging patatas bravas (though they do a good version of the classic dish), chorizo cooked with apple cider (ditto) or pan con tomate (ditto again) to a Melbourne public grown permanently fond of tapas. Head chef Alex Drobysz, under the eye of managing director and co-owner Gavin Baker (ex-Little Hunter), really gets the modern, inventive liveliness of San Sebastián's bars. He sticks to a Basque-Spanish script, but also incorporates the broader experience he's picked up working in Europe, the US, and the UK.
Take the jamón vinaigrette that's served with the Pacific oysters, for example. It's made with slowly rendered jamón fat that's mixed with Spanish chardonnay vinegar, shallots, a little lemon juice and coriander. It's a great mix, if a little odd at first taste, this rich, slightly salty, subtly meaty dressing with the briny oysters. But it quickly seems logical and, eventually, kind of addictive. Or a "pig's head" tapa that combines the shredded meat from a whole brined and poached head (a process that takes a couple of days) mixed with Dijon mustard, capers, cornichons and shallots. That mix is rolled into small discs coated with a parsley and chive breadcrumb, fried and then teamed with a salad of carrots - puréed, pickled, roasted and shaved raw - and a horseradish and mustard vinaigrette. It's fairly complex stuff that, remarkably, works whether you're after a quick hit of nicely textured, salty, fried porky goodness or you want to analyse its multiple layers of cooking technique and varieties of heirloom carrots.
This tension between simplicity and complexity seems to give Bar Nacional its hum because it's present even when the place is less than full (early weeknights can be a good time to visit for those protective of their personal space). The way the place is decked out certainly speaks of simplicity, or at least simplicity as imagined by an interior designer with an enthusiasm for theme-appropriate terrazzo, tiles, leather, timber and brass. The space feels a little clunky however, as though the central triangular bar's too big or there's too much furniture (a mix of dark-brown or orange upholstered armchairs, ottomans, bar stools and chairs surrounding timber tables and window benches), or the little dining room tucked into a corner like an afterthought may or may not have been part of the original plan.
But it's actually quite appealing, this slight awkwardness, the sense of a couple of rough edges or an uncrossed T. It feels real and saves the space from sliding into over-styled themepark territory.
The service style helps, managing to mix loose and personable with accuracy, a high strike rate for the quips and a genuine enthusiasm for the food.
With a kitchen team like the one assembled at Bar Nacional, it would be silly not to be confident. It's a young team, crackling with energy. Drobysz shares cooking space with Jo Barrett (ex-MoVida Bakery), who keeps the place in admirable bread and pastries, and Shaun Quade who is creating some of Melbourne's best and most interesting desserts here.
Quade's take on the classic crema Catalana, for example, has a burnt-orange backbeat to the custard, caramelised fennel seeds scattered over the brûléed sugar crust and is topped with polvorón (the crumbly, super-short Spanish shortbread) that's been flavoured with bay leaves.
Then there's the wonderfully named tocino del cielo (which translates as heaven's bacon), a kind of crème caramel on steroids that includes rendered pork fat in the egg yolk-heavy mix giving it an amazingly good, sticky, soft toffee-like texture. Crisp corn chip-like shards of cooked and dehydrated polenta with a salty caramel popcorn powder accompany the smooth, sticky flan.
A bitter chocolate liquid cake is less off the wall but equally impressive. When ruptured it oozes a green aniseed, white chocolate and olive oil centre. Add some couverture chocolate (formed into wavy lines) and a quite brilliant lemon marmalade ice-cream, and you can feel cult status hurtling at it like a runaway train.
You could probably give the same nod to some of Bar Nacional's savoury stuff, too. The house-made morcilla packs heat with its mace and paprika spicing, juicy in the middle, crisp at the edges from roasting, and served with Jerusalem artichoke purée and pickled garlic. Razor clams, quickly seared in the kitchen's Josper oven, are smoky with a little char, chopped and served in the shell with a tomato and pine nut salsa, and garlic toast on the side. Or the Brussels sprouts croquettes, creamy and, again, smoky from the sprouts being scorched in the Josper before being chopped, puréed and folded through the béchamel mix.
The Josper gets a workout with the larger plates, too, including the "fish on a board". Drobysz gets his firewood supplier to cut various fruit woods - anything from peach and cherry to olive and almond - into discs and then puts a whole fish, perhaps flathead or blue cod from the Chatham Islands, on the board simply brushed with garlic oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. The whole thing then goes into the oven for a few minutes, the heat of the oven not only releasing the oils in the wood but also setting the edges of the board alight so that it comes to the table smouldering. It's a nice theatrical touch, but it also gives the fish, simply accompanied by an eggplant purée, another subtle flavour dimension that's noticeable (like the woodsmoke) but doesn't overpower the fish itself.
There are more intriguing flavour combinations elsewhere, too. Pork belly, cut into cubes and topped with crackling, is brined with some liquorice root that adds another savoury element to the meat, while the pear that accompanies it has been compressed with yuzu and fresh mint. Heirloom tomatoes accompanying a simply cooked wagyu skirt are marinated in, among other things, chardonnay vinegar for about four hours, broad beans are flavoured with citrus.
It's a smart move, then, for Bar Nacional, no stranger to complexity or lengthy cooking processes, to offer a wine list that clocks in at a restrained three pages of mostly Spanish wines (the others are from Australia, mostly Victoria). It's a user-friendly collection, too, with generous and well-priced choices by the glass. The grape varieties will be reasonably familiar to anyone who's previously browsed a Spanish list - lots of tempranillo, garnacha and albariño - and there are solid offerings of Sherry, beer (including Estrella Galicia on tap) and cocktails rounding out Bar Nacional's bar credentials.
You could very easily just use Bar Nacional as a bar, particularly in the European sense where you'd come here for coffee and pastries during the morning and then wind down the day with a drink or two in the early evening. But to do that would be missing out on the work of a skilled and inventive kitchen team that turns out seriously good food at every level. Locals and workers should be very pleased. It's Docklands, Jim, but not as we know it.