Melbourne is undoubtedly Australia’s hippest city. It has a buzz and vibrancy— particularly in the area around Federation Square where Victorian and Edwardian architecture mingle with modern design— that is unparalleled, even in Sydney, Melbourne’s glamorous and more famous big sister.
Even the people are hip. They all seem to know the place to be and what to wear without looking like they tried too hard to put a ‘look’ together. On my first visit to Melbourne, I dubbed this the city of cool shoes.
So I was feeling tragically un-hip in my comfortable walking shoes when my husband and I turned up the heavily graffitied lane across from Federation Square that led to Movida, one of Melbourne’s trendiest restaurants and the top Tapas bar in Australia.
Making our way up the lane we could see what appeared to be some sort of fashion shoot going on. The “legs-up-to there” model was vamping in red fishnet stockings, a tight-fitting goth-goes-glam t-shirt, and four-inch black patent leather peep-toe stilettos (remember, this is the city of cool shoes).
My transition from slightly self-conscious practical traveler to mortified dowdy tourist raised in America’s Midwest was complete.
To make matters worse, we showed up at the ultra-unfashionable hour of 5 p.m. to make sure we could get a spot at the bar since we had phoned the night before and were told the dining room was booked out.
The restaurant was empty, with the exception of two couples lingering at bar tables, presumably after a late lunch. I felt conspicuous as we took seats at the vacant bar. The bartender handed us menus and as I got lost in the list of tapa and racion, my self-consciousness drifted away. Quail, rabbit, octopus— what’s that? Iberico jamon?— I had to have them all.
When I looked up 10 minutes later, every seat at the bar was full. I began to think that maybe we weren’t so unfashionable after all. We ordered a bottle of Tempranillo from Rioja and as we waited for our first round of dishes to come out, the bartender gave us a plate of bread and olive oil. One, a sourdough, and the other a beautiful red-hued foccacia-like bread that was dusted with paprika and smoked salt. The taste was exquisite.
Minutes later, the chef—the chef!— came and presented us with mushroom croquetas and pulpo a la gallega, octopus with kipfler potatoes and paprika. The croquetas were oozy inside, crisp out and had just a tantalizing hint of mushroom essence that made me want more. The octopus, something I always worry will be tough and inedible, was tender and smoky.
We ordered two more dishes, then made small talk about the finals of the Australian Open taking place that evening with a couple seated around the corner of the bar. I was beginning to feel at home.
The next round included a lightly breaded boned quail stuffed with mahon cheese. If only this was the marrow of every quail, I’d never eat another kind of poultry. It came out with the true indulgence of the evening: Jamon Iberico de jabugo.
Jamon Iberico is a cured ham made only in Spain and Portugal and it’s made from a select breed of black pig that feeds on acorns. Until December 2007, it wasn’t even allowed to be sold in the U.S. There are different grades of Jamon Iberico, but Movida serves the fully acorn fed variety that’s cured for three years. It’s top of the line with a price tag to match: $20 for 20 grams. It was rich, almost buttery with hints of citrus on the palate. Delicious and worth every penny for the taste experience.
Following that was the Conjeo, a confit of rabbit with piquillo peppers, and it was the only disappointment of the evening. It arrived crumbed and fried and after already having two breaded dishes (the quail and croqueta), I was sad to see another one. Plus, it was on the dry side.
My spirits were quickly raised by the next delivery from the kitchen: A scallop baked with jamon and potato foam, presented in a pretty shell, and the masterpiece of the meal, the Ortiz which we ordered on a whim. At $4.50 a pop, there’s not much to lose. This creation—a Cantabrian anchovy served on a thin crouton and topped with smoked tomato sorbet—is truly inspired.
Crunchy, salty, sweet and cold. The mingling of flavors and textures seemed to awaken every sensory receptor in my mouth and brain, transporting me ever-so-briefly to a plane of culinary enlightenment.
Although I was absolutely content after the ethereal Ortiz, it seemed criminal not to try a dessert, and the churros were an obvious choice. They came with a cup of rich, thick drinking chocolate to dip them in. We wolfed the churros down so quickly (as if we could possibly be the slightest bit hungry after the previous seven dishes and bread), I neglected to get a picture of them. When I came to my senses, the only thing left to photograph was a few crumbs and some drinking chocolate.
While waiting to pay the bill, I flipped through the Movida cookbook and found a passage I sort of wish I’d read before arriving because it would have eased my early self- consciousness. Chef Frank Camorra writes about how people show up at Movida and become irate because they can’t get a table and then refuse to sit at the bar. He says he doesn’t understand that attitude because eating at the bar is the true spirit of tapas.
But since I hadn’t read that passage before going, I was able to learn through experience; and the food, the welcoming bartenders and convivial atmosphere are proof that Chef Camorra and his staff have captured that spirit which makes for a singular dining experience.