"What's your favourite MoVida?" For Melburnians of a certain bent this is a question that's sparked some heated discussions following the opening of MoVida Aqui late last year. The Spanish restaurant that started life in a slightly scruffy pub in the city's west end before embracing laneway culture, garnering rave reviews and an almost prohibitively lengthy wait list, has become four businesses, all with their own distinct slants and followings.
For many fans of Frank Camorra's take on modern Spanish food, their hearts will always belong to the Hosier Lane mothership and its spunky little seafood-loving offshoot, MoVida Next Door. But there's plenty going on at Aqui (and its café/bar offsider MoVida Terraza) to challenge the loyalties of even the most rusted-on supporter of the original.
There are undoubtedly some similarities - both places leave menu space for the much-loved anchovy and smoked tomato sorbet tapa and have an affinity with good quality jamón - but where there's debate, there're also differences.
Probably the most immediate and obvious difference is that while MoVida is all about tucked away, tightly spaced, moody/gloomy atmospherics, Aqui ("here" in Spanish) has an elevated position, is encased in walls of glass that frame the cityscape (including, charmingly, the Victorian-era dome of the Supreme Court) and further embraces the great outdoors with its sizeable terrace. If you're into categorisation, it's loosely a Madrid versus Barcelona kind of equation.
During the day, Aqui is all about bustle and light as workers from the surrounding legal precinct crowd into one of the few decent restaurants in this neck of the woods, but at night the spacious terrazzo-floored dining area, with its dominating central kitchen/bar overhung with illuminated upturned milk crates and bright yellow Moritz beer signage, combines the buzz with a sophisticated, distinctly urban sense of fun, complete with a crowd dressed in suitably dark hues who seem to know their amontillado from their manzanilla.
Much of this fun can be attributed to the crack floor staff, who know their stuff and are appealingly enthusiastic about it. The team is led by Liz Carey, who provides a charming, good-humoured presence and keeps an eye on the Aqui wine list, a nicely directed collection that spends plenty of time in Spain but also nimbly flits between the Old and New Worlds, cherry-picking varietals that work well with the robust flavours here. A generous list of wines by the glass and a decent collection of half bottles show a true understanding of the flexible, sharing, snacking philosophy to which Aqui subscribes.
The other significant difference between the original and the newcomer is the size of the kitchen at Aqui, which, with its red-gum-fired parrilla (a metal-plated charcoal grill), a separate pastry area and the space to make rice-based dishes for up to six people at a time, allows the kitchen team - led by Camorra's long-time deputy, James Campbell - some pretty impressive room to move.
This is apparent in both large and small details. The white rolls that are central to the ridiculously addictive success of the bocadillo de calamares - stuffed with slices of the freshest calamari seasoned with lemon, salt and pepper and quickly deep-fried, topped with mayonnaise and crunchy little pickled guindilla peppers - are made in-house. The same goes for the ensaïmada, a traditional Majorcan yeast cake made with lard, which is gently caramelised with a blowtorch before being topped with (and softened by) a slightly wet mixture of grilled duck livers and earthy chanterelles fried with some onion and then tossed with a dark, sweet reduction of oloroso.
The flexibility of the larger kitchen is probably part of the reason there's less emphasis on tapas at Aqui, though that list still has some gems, particularly on the daily specials menu, which might include fresh sea urchins served in their spiky shells, their superb rock-pool flavour simply accompanied by some torn sorrel dressed with lemon juice and oil. Or perhaps shavings of cuttlefish adrift in a tiny serve of slightly cloudy seafood consommé, accompanied by a prawn cracker-sized pork scratching coated in a lively combination of lime zest and paprika.
But ración-sized dishes with big flavours take up the most space on the menu here, which makes gathering a few friends an excellent, variety-enhancing plan.
One of Aqui's signature dishes (and a constant presence on the otherwise constantly changing menu) is the botifarra, a traditional Catalan pork sausage, heavily flavoured with black pepper. Like most of the sausages here - such as the brilliantly rich morcilla that's often teamed with char-gilled quail - the comforting, fortifying botifarra is made in-house and accompanied by piquillo peppers and, depending on the season, perhaps braised black beans or sweet char-grilled leeks.
The smoky flavour of the parrilla also comes to the fore in a dish of imported baby sardines, tossed from the tin onto the charcoal and then teamed with freshly made ricotta-like curd and a slow-poached egg. It's a subtle dish, all soft textures and pale colours, slightly salty and with the smoke flavour wispily underlining it all.
There's nothing wispy about the surf 'n' turf moves of the monte y mar (literally "mountain and sea"), a take on a classic Catalan combo that sees excellent veal meatballs studded with little nubs of diced cuttlefish and served with a slightly thickened white wine and lemon myrtle sauce that's also tossed with some small plump surf clams in the shell. It's a great combination, salty and tangy in all the right places.
Aqui's desserts tread a similar path, taking traditional ideas and spinning them with a modern, typically MoVidan, touch. Sopes Inglés is a brilliant little trifle served in a glass, all browns, yellows and creams, its five layers comprising sponge soaked in quince liqueur, quince purée, Pedro Ximénez jelly, crème Catalan-style custard and sugared almonds. It delivers a great punch of flavour without overdoing the sugar or the alcohol - a very grown-up kind of trifle.
Eating in MoVida Aqui gives you the real sense of a restaurant excited by its own possibilities and proud of its ability to show you a good time. Despite being one of an ostensible chain, there's no sense of flagging energy or cynical repetition. Aqui, like the original MoVida and the kids - Next Door and Terraza - has its own pace, flavours and style. Depending on your loyalty to what went before, it could just become your new favourite.