If there's a series of pubs owned by the same guys, renovated using the same architects and employing the same chef as "creative director", does that make it a chain? It's a question worth contemplating now that St Kilda's Newmarket Hotel has joined a stable that includes the Middle Park, Albert Park and Royal Saxon Hotels, closely following a template that's seen its predecessors make conspicuous successes of themselves.
And while the formula - Julian Gerner, co-owner, and Mark Healy, a director at Six Degrees architects, the firm responsible for the group's fit-outs, teaming up with Paul Wilson, who oversees all the kitchens except the Royal Saxon's - can certainly sound like a chain, the reality is altogether different. These places seem more like cousins than clones.
The Newmarket is the least restaurant-y of the Gerner/Healy/Wilson collaborations; it's the younger, hipper member of the family. Where the Albert Park is all about seafood with a Spanish bent and the Middle Park loves its British/European meat, the Newmarket takes its attitude, flavour and design cues (even its aural ones, if the Eagles and Chicago-laced soundtrack is any indication) from the west coast of the US.
Californian-Mexican, or Cal-Mex if you want to sound more au fait, is the label for what the Newmarket is doing. It's a good one to adopt right now, not only tapping into the burgeoning love for all things South and Central American but allowing for a degree of flexibility you wouldn't get if you slapped the Mexican label on yourself. Cal-Mex restaurants in cities such as San Francisco certainly embrace Mexico and South America but they also bring Spanish and Italian flavours into the fold. It makes for a pretty broad canvas.
Still, Wilson is not a chef to fudge his influences and he has a firm grasp of what makes Cal-Mex tick. Direct your attention to the salad section of the Newmarket's menu, for example, and you'll get a good indication of how things roll.
Salads can be ordered as entrées or main courses and they present as meals, not sides. The chopped Mexican salad, a kind of Latin American take on the Caesar with its salty, cheesy, creamy dressing flavoured mainly with queso fresco (a sort of crumbly, brined ricotta) and its crunchy refreshing mix of iceberg, cactus, radish, tomato and jicama, gives off an unmistakably Baja Californian vibe, while another small classic that mixes slices of ripe figs with purple basil, mint and a fat, creamy burrata shows how easily the Italian side of things fits into the Newmarket agenda.
Ease is one of this pub's mantras and it starts with the Six Degrees renovation. As with the Royal Saxon, the only part of the original Newmarket building left standing is its façade. Get past the over-officious, clipboard-wielding door staff standing guard and you walk into a pleasant outdoor beer garden that continues down one side of the new structure as an alfresco dining room. In classic Six Degrees style, the outside is connected to the inside by a series of large glass windows that flip up when the weather is sympathetic.
The large central bar, all '70s-chanelling cream and brown bricks, serves both this outside area and an inside bar area that has raised bench tables and stools. Running along the other side of the bar is the main dining area, defined by a series of concrete arches, tartan picnic blanket-patterned carpet, bare timber tables and super-comfortable upholstered swivelling bucket seats. At the back, near the kitchen, is a chef's table that seats 16 people.
It's an open airy space that feels completely flexible. Being the work of Six Degrees, it's dotted with recycled and retro flourishes like the hilarious wallpaper in the dining room depicting businessmen cavorting with a gaggle of scantily clad women. The music is loud, the staff mostly young and enthusiastic and the sightlines great for scoping the room. The longer you spend in the place, the more the California-house-party vibe takes hold.
Of course that could be the cocktails - fruity, thirst-quenching summery drinks that the Newmarket makes by the glass or the pitcher are given equal billing with an extensive list of tap beer and an inexpensive all-barrel, all-Victorian wine list available by the glass or in two different sizes of carafe. Drink what you like, it seems to say, don't take it too seriously. It's a good template for how to eat here as well.
The menu is as flexible as the space, so it's as easy to structure a three-course meal as to whack a whole bunch of plates (or boards and wooden bowls as is more often the case) into the middle of the table for a communal feast.
There are rich hamburger-like morcilla bocadillos, with the slice of rich blood sausage joining crisp jamón, fried quail egg and piquillo peppers on skewered, barbecued ciabatta, or corn cobs grilled in their husks so they are steamed soft (too much so in some cases) before being tossed with sour cream flavoured with smoked paprika and cumin and sprinkled with queso fresco.
Tacos are a highlight: soft, slightly chewy, spot-charred little circles made in-house with masa harina flour and cooked on the flat grill. There's one with prawn pieces, guacamole and jicama with a sparky dressing of tart tomatillos and lime juice all topped with Thai basil and coriander. Another features tempura-battered Balmain bug meat, an Asian-style coleslaw with lime leaf and green mango and a hearty charred pineapple salsa with chilli, Spanish onions and lime keeping the power factor high. The texture balances - soft chewy taco, tangy salad crunch, creamy guacamole - are all big fun.
The rock-star taco turn comes with a wood-roasted bone marrow number, a sort of Fergus Henderson goes south of the border concoction: two tacos nursing a salad of parsley, coriander and jalapeño topped with sour cream, split bone marrow smeared with chimichurri mixed with emulsified herbs so it looks like a salsa verde, and a small dish of "ranchero style" wagyu brisket, with tender meat chunks in a rich, chocolaty, chilli-infused mole sauce. Assembled, it's classic Wilson: volume turned to 11, as brilliant as it's big-flavoured.
More big meaty flavours take the form not only of cuts from the six-strong steak menu and the rotisserie (anything from rare-breed lamb to goat), but also of the Southern barbecue moves of the St Louis-cut pork ribs. Cooked "low and slow", this classic slab of ribs is rubbed down with spices then slow-cooked in a spicy/citrusy tomato-based sauce that's further reduced before being served over the top as "Mr Wilson's barbecue sauce". It comes with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts and an excellent apple coleslaw.
The wood-roasted chicken, a Milawa free-range number that's been poached in chicken stock and finished in the oven, arrives moist, glistening and nestled among a warm salad of sweet corn, croûtons, tomatoes and pancetta. The salad is chopped into small pieces so each mouthful is a crunchy/salty/sweet/juicy fiesta in your mouth.
The party continues with desserts that take the Cal-Mex concept and run with it. There's fruit, there's tequila, there's chocolate and there's dulce de leche on the list, one of the best combos being a moscato jelly infused with cinnamon and vanilla and studded with fresh berries, combined with a zesty tequila and lime (aka Margarita) sorbet and crushed meringue.
You can have so much flexible, cocktail-infused, shared-plate, indoor-outdoor fun at the Newmarket that it's easy to overlook what a tightly constructed, clever concept this is. Undoubtedly this pub has benefited from the experiences of Gerner, Wilson et al at previous ventures, but despite that chain-like lineage, there's no whiff of production line. If the Newmarket Hotel is an example of a chain restaurant for the here and now, bring it on.