Melbourne is a city blessed with a difficult question: which is your favourite MoVida? The CBD has three versions, plus a sibling bar, Tres a Cinco, each with its own personality and spin on a heavily Spanish-accented menu. Unfortunately for the decision-phobic, there are no duds in the group.
A conundrum like this can leave you paralysed by choice but MoVida Aqui is here to help. Recently re-opened after a thorough renovation and sporting a menu that includes the brilliant and highly addictive cangrejo (warm two-bite crumpets topped with crab meat, saffron mayo and bright pops of finger lime), Aqui may have just edged ahead in the poll.
Aqui's renovation has stripped back the edgy exuberance of the original design (most notably by losing the colourful milk-crate installation that once defined the bar), replacing it with a darker, more luxurious look, all curved banquettes, maroon and green accents and comfortably upholstered timber furniture that says restaurant rather than tapas bar. It still has buzz, but Aqui is quieter and more classically elegant than its laneway brethren, in tune with its legal precinct location in the shadow of the Supreme Court dome.
There's no lack of exuberance with the menu. The cooking pops with big flavours and gorgeous balance indicating a kitchen operating with impressive skill and confidence.
There's roughly-cut bluefin tuna loin served with segments of smoky charred orange and aji amarillo (a bright and fruity chilli) and fabulous chicharron, thin slices of charcuterie-like pork belly accompanied only by a wedge of lemon. Not to be missed is a rich, brightly flavoured broccoli salad, where creamily dressed broccoli shavings are tossed with white beans, pomegranate seeds and spunky, mildly hot Espelette pepper.
Tapas are a highlight. The signature anchovy and smoked tomato sorbet number headlines the show and rightly so, but there are other hits to be found, including sea urchin, fatty lardo and avocado topping a seaweed cracker or an applause-worthy single-bite tart filled with peppers, eggplant, leek and terracotta-coloured romesco sauce.
The wine list, always a highlight for Spanish booze fans, is well-priced, generous in the by-the-glass department and includes a small treasure trove of excellent vermut, while the service scarcely misses a beat, even as the room fills.
It's a room worth filling and many in it may draw a similar conclusion: that this might be their favourite MoVida.