John Lethlean: The Australian

Octopus photo

Bellota, Melbourne, becomes a hybrid experience under Danielle Rensonnet

 

THE AUSTRALIAN NOVEMBER 15, 2014

CURTAINS of cured legs. Walls of dried/smoked sausages, all shapes and sizes. Streets running with blood, soon to be turned to that most elegant of black puddings, morcilla…

Wandering Spain, you really do start to wonder if there are any live pigs left out there at all. The curing and consumption of their meat is nothing short of a national obsession. And the pinnacle, jamón ibérico de bellota, is from pigs that roam oak forests and eat only acorns during their final, wild romp before heading you know where.

Now, Acorn wouldn’t be a bad name for a restaurant. Cute-ish; laden with proverbial meaning. But its Spanish translation, Bellota, is a whole lot sexier. And this place is as close to an Old World eating and drinking experience – calling it a restaurant seems too limiting – as you’ll find in the New World.

Bellota, a small place in South Melbourne where I left a little of my heart the other night, is the kind of hybrid experience you could only find outside Europe. It’s really all about the sensibility rather than a specific culture, and wine (naturally) plays a huge part. Because Bellota is an extension of a very good wine shop next door, and indeed is run by the same enthusiasts. And from the decor to the attitude, they’ve done a convincing, cliché-free job of expressing the sum of their European wine experience in a local place to enjoy the stuff with quality food, regardless of the portion.

At Bellota they want you to buy a glass of wine first, and then, maybe, consider a snack, or perhaps the menu proper. But only after you’ve talked wine with someone knowledgeable, not up themselves at all, and tried something new (taste, glass or demi-carafe). I’d like to live next door.

Now here’s the controversial bit: serious wine people know a lot more about quality food than most restaurateurs. They travel more, eat better, often have more money to do so. Bellota reflects that knowledge base particularly well.

The food is excellent, from the baguette with butter in a metal basket (did you read that Perth, Brisbane?) to the French fries that are exactly what they’re supposed to be, and everything in between. Bistro food at its most simple, unshackled best.

There’s a serious collection of sliced-to-order salumi, of course, plus other charcuterie. Bresaola is served with pickled mild green chilli, French beans and yellow pepper in olive oil, smart on a board with Bellota-branded paper.

Smoked octopus comes as a kind of “salad” with salsa verde, diced confit tomato, sorrel and black garlic mayo with shredded sorrel. All lively.

You want a main as an entree? Easy. Orzo is jumbled with spanner crab and baby zucchini with their flowers, with a little fresh tomato; spaghettini is tossed with fresh tomato, fennel, dill and smoked mussels. Sharp flavour edges are honed, making this great wine food.

Grilled spatchcock with light chicken jus and Jerusalem artichoke is in the same camp, carefully executed; ditto for a piece of Wagyu bavette, quickly grilled, rested and served with anchovy/thyme butter, fries and a leaf/radish salad. Simple as hell, but thought through and sold at sensible prices.

The arrival of chef Danielle Rensonnet earlier this year has amped the food here. She proves it with a simple, but oh-so-perfect crème a la Cassonade – like a crème brûlée but with a crumbled praline topping – augmented with dense, ruby-red rhubarb. $12.

We drank wines by the glass all night. Great staff who never up-sold on any brief. Golly, this is a fine team. And ultimately, the name Bellota is a kind of by-word for “quality”. It works at every level.

 

Address: 181 Bank St, South Melbourne

Phone: (03) 9078 8381

Web: bellota.com.au

Hours: Lunch, dinner, Tue-Sat

Typical prices: Antipasti $12; mains $30; desserts $12

Summary: Pig out

Like this? Try… 10 William St, Sydney; Proof, Adelaide

Stars: 4 out of 5