34 Inkerman Street
St Kilda VIC 3182
+61 3 9537 1777
The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival returns this year, though at the time of writing this blog it’s a few days away from wrapping up. Although there were many events that sparked my interest, my bank balance was not kind to me so I missed out on quite a bit. Thankfully, though, the MFWF has an express lunch offer whereby $35 will land you two courses, a glass of Victorian wine and tea or coffee at participating restaurants. Newmarket Hotel in St Kilda, a Cali-slash-Mex-slash-Tex-inspired gastropub with a menu by Paul Wilson to boot, was one such eatery that I wanted to try for quite some time. So when the hotel on the list of participating restaurants, I knew I had to go.
With a tired just-arrived-from-Queensland Marty in tow, we trammed it up St Kilda Rd … and walked towards the wrong end of Inkerman Street. We finally realised that we were nowhere near the hotel, so we did an about-face and followed a skater chick (whom we later found out worked at the restaurant) into the red-brick hotel that no longer resembled its 1920s self thanks to years of deterioration before being scrubbed up by the guys at Six Degrees architectural firm (also responsible for making Albert Park and Middle Park hotels look pretty).
Although the fit-out is stylish, sexy and modern, elements of the old Newmarket Hotel remain. The 1960s vinyl armchairs all over the restaurant are still there, and the pimpin’ wallpaper featuring bare-chested strumpets throwing themselves over businessmen have been dutifully replicated.
Naturally, we were here for the express lunch. But just to make sure, the waiter who had showed us to our seats asked us if we were here for the express lunch as he handed us our menus. Just as I was nodding, Marty innocently asked the waiter, ‘What IS the express lunch?’ which elicited silence and a murderous greasy from the waiter. Now I don’t know about you but I think it’s more reasonable to assume that the diner may not actually know about the existence of this so-called express lunch than to think that anyone who steps into the restaurant would automatically know. Sure, most diners having lunch that day would have heard of the express lunch deal and/or made bookings to secure their table (and subsequently, be told about the express lunch over the phone if they hadn’t known). However, it is also very possible that a small percentage of diners here are walk-ins who have gingerly walked into the nearest restaurant, looking for a feed and had no idea what to expect in terms of menu choices. Come on, Mr waiter, at least play along?
Thankfully, he was nowhere to be seen for the rest of our meal. Instead, a sunny blonde waitress with a British accent took over the reigns. After we selected our options, an entrée and main for myself, and a main and dessert for Marty (with an additional starter to share), she brought us our drinks. Marty felt like a beer so he decided to order a White Rabbit white ale ($7.50). Given that Marty is
an idiot someone who isn’t well-versed in the art of drinking ale, he predictably thought the beer tasted like ‘bat shit.’ Meanwhile, I received my wine for the meal, a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Mt Avoca in the Pyrenees, probably one of the very few local wines from a long list of red and white varieties from the states and Europe.
We shared a plate of soft tacos with prawns, fragrant herbs and jicama slaw ($16). Bryan told me, not too long ago, that he wasn’t a fan of Newmarket Hotel’s tacos so when Martin decided to order them, I wanted to tell him to order something else. Annoyingly, there was nothing else that tickled our fancies – and we didn’t want to order another quesadilla seeing as I had ordered one as an entrée. So tacos, it was. At $16 for two microscopic portions, I did feel that they were expensive. That said, they actually tasted pretty good. A beautiful balance was created by all the ingredients being brought together by a fresh lime dressing. I wanted more – but not at that price.
My entrée came in the form of a chicken, chorizo and manchego quesadilla, with sauce crema and smokey[sic] chipotle. It was – surprisingly, I might add – brilliant. There was an even balance between the two type of meats enveloped in the quesadilla with the lovely manchego cheese and sauce crema (essentially a tomato and cheese sauce) drawing everything together.
Dashes of chipotle, full of smokiness and heat, cut through the meats and cheese effortlessly and with a bit of not-needed-but-much-appreciated fire. I did have to pay close attention to those pesky jalapeño bits, though!
Marty enjoyed some wood-BBQ wagyu short ribs with fragrant hominy pilaf and red mole. I initially had no idea what half those ingredients were, but a quick google search on my iPhone told me that hominy pilaf was a dried corn with the hull and germ removed. The result was a grain that was puffier (and somehow tastier) than white rice and had the ability to soak up the rich and spicy tomato-based mole sauce, which actually had hints of dark chocolate in it. It paired up beautifully with the ribs like two horny college students in Cancún (okay, maybe not the best analogy…). That said, Marty was expecting the meat to fall off the bone; while it tasted good, I had to agree. The meat was a little tough (but not overly).
I had the Plancha-grilled market fish with desert lime fresca, and fragrant herbs for my main. To cook ‘la plancha’ means to grill on a metal plate. As a result, the market fish – a sea bass in my case – was beautifully moist in the middle and emitted a slightly smoky taste. While I loved it on its own, I wasn’t sure about the rest of the ingredients in the dish. Sure, I thought the salsa was competent but I wished there was something that (a sauce? a dressing?) that was able to draw both the salsa and the fish together. As for the desert lime frescas? They tasted sour and bitter at the same time and I hated them. I felt that the kitchen added them simply to show off (‘Wow! Look at us! We’re using rare ingredients!’). By all means, use little-known ingredients if you really think they will add something to the dish but in this case, only pretention was added.
With our stomachs feeling comfortable, I was ready to head down to Seven Apples on Acland Street for some gelati. That is, until I remembered that Marty still had his dessert to come. The waitress also reminded him that he still had his glass of wine to consume (included in the express lunch) so he grabbed a rosé, a Rhone blend from Michelton in Central Victoria, to accompany his tequila and coffee flan.
The flan was covered in a dark chocolate sauce and decorated with a lovely sesame tuille for a bit of crunch. I loved that the chocolate sauce, which initially looked overpowering, wasn’t exactly rich enough to smother the silky flan underneath. Marty loved it, I loved it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t say the same about the rosé which he thought ‘taste[d] like goon.’
After some cups of tea (peppermint for me, please), we walked down to Acland Street for more dessert … but that’s another story for another time. Overall, we had a reasonably decent meal at Newmarket Hotel. Okay, so I thought that the price of those tacos were highway robbery, even for Melbourne. And the use of rare ingredients made me think that the kitchen was showing signs of cooking wankery in some cases. Meanwhile, Marty made a fair comment about how Mexican/Tex-Mex/Hispanic food, like Vietnamese food, is synonymous with street food and that trying to make them ‘fancy’ by slapping them into an upmarket hotel and charging $30-40 for a main is sacrilegious. That said, the fact that the dining room was at full capacity that afternoon indicated that there is a viable market for upmarket Hispanic cuisine in Melbourne so rest assured that Newmarket Hotel is here to stay. While I’ll be hard-pressed to pay full-price for a meal here (express lunch, fine), I can certainly see myself sitting in the front courtyard for after-work drinks with a quesadilla on the side. Hell, with a cocktail list consisting of names such as ‘Jean Lanfray Conspiracy’ and ‘Funky Cold Medina’ (!!), I don’t see why not!