Restaurant Reviews

Sebastian, Melbourne review

Come for the stunning location, stay for the menu highlights – Sebastian brings seaside Basque charm to bayside Williamstown.

By Michael Harden
You had me at heritage-listed 1930s bathing pavilion in Williamstown. Add a restaurateur with runs on the board (Dave Parker of Neptune, San Telmo and Pastuso, among others) and a fondness for San Sebastian's pintxos bars, and we're deep into hell-yeah territory. Even with this western bayside suburb's track record of producing disappointing restaurants, expectations at Sebastian are as high as the potential of dashed hopes.
Good news then that expectations win the day.
On the deck of the art deco pavilion.
The first encouraging hint arrives with the chistorra, chef Leigh Robbins's house-made version of the classic Basque sausage. It's superb, cooked over charcoal, and flavoured with pimento, juniper, fennel and cumin. There's plenty of fat and salt in the pork to keep things juicy and full-flavoured, and the accompanying syrupy cider reduction, accented with star anise and bay, hits the classic pork-and-apple sweet spot. It's the sort of morsel that might have you ordering a second with your mouth still full with the first.
And then there are Basque mussels, lightly coated in a tempura-style batter before being fried and served with a sprightly, slightly funky fermented-chilli aïoli. Promise, if nothing else, to one day sit on Sebastian's expansive waterfront terrace with a chilled dry vermouth or Estrella Damm and treat yourself to a plate of these crisp little numbers.
Basque mussels with aïoli and lemon.
There's an excellent crema Catalana too, a not-too-sweet, perfectly creamy dessert that releases a noticeable orange scent when you break through its sugar cap. It's a deft version of a classic that's harder than it looks to perfect.
This is the way Sebastian rolls. Its allegiance is to the pintxos bars clustered around San Sebastian's La Concha beach rather than the big-name starry restaurants that have made the city a centre of innovative cooking. Nobody's trying to break new ground here in Williamstown: the approach is about simple flavours and quality ingredients from a kitchen with a char-grill at its centre.
The decision to keep it simple is also apparent in the renovation of the quietly gorgeous art deco pavilion. There's the beachside timber deck complete with an immense view of the bay, breezeblock bar, forest of umbrellas and blue-and-white wicker furniture. Inside, it's tan upholstered horseshoe booths, flocks of white lightshades, undressed tables, more breezeblocks and a stylish, relaxed attitude. The mix of hard flooring and carpet keeps noise levels at a buzzy rather than jarring level. On a busy night it can feel a little like being at a lavish wedding reception.
A Burnt Orange Sunset Sour
It's the sort of venue that makes you want to lean into the wine list, but here, it seems like a little more time to settle is needed. There are cocktails that suit the setting, channelling the Spritz and favouring Spanish and South American booze like pisco and Sherry. And there's a decent all-Spanish list of vermouth, enough tequila to satisfy tequila fans, and some good, well-priced wines – the super dry, elegant Aizpurua Txakolina, for instance, will never make you unhappy. But in a restaurant with a name like this, you'd expect to see less malbec, more cava, and you might wonder why there are six tempranillos in such a compact space.
There are occasional hiccups with the food, too. Leek and béchamel croquetas are surprisingly bland, and a snapper ceviche is too wet, the fish suffering under an onslaught of grapefruit, watermelon, yoghurt and chilli.
Still there's no faulting the foie gras pintxo, a carnivore's sweet symphony of French foie wrapped in eye fillet, skewered, char-grilled and dressed with salt and honey. Yes, please.
Lamb rump is simply and effectively presented, grilled and flavoured with a zesty mix of sumac, lemon and coriander.
Flounder, meanwhile, smoky from the grill, is served whole in crowd-pleasing style, and arrives with fried butter beans and a paste-like sauce of anchovies, onions, white wine and burnt butter.
There's a good whole eggplant, too, smoked to the point of soft surrender and accompanied by decent baba ghanoush and a well-judged, acidic à la Grecque dressing.
From left: General manager and co-director Alex Brawn, head chef Leigh Robbins and co-director Dave Parker.
The best thing Sebastian does is show you a good time. Personable young staff, brilliant water views, pretty architecture and a menu that has your best interests at heart all come together to prove the "sum of its parts" rule. For those in the east, now's a good time to go west.