These days in Melbourne it is hard for a restaurant to stay open for a year, so it can be surprising when one hits the ten year milestone. 2003 was the year when two of my favourite Melbourne restaurants opened, the first being my top pizza destination, Ladro; the second being the original MoVida. The MoVida story has continued to grow and evolve over the past decade, with the original ‘Bar de Tapas’ changing from tapas bar to a more refined dining destination, yet without losing its sense of energy and fun; with the addition of ‘Next Door’ becoming their more casual tapas bar. Then there was opening of Aqui at the other end of the CBD, airport spots (Melbourne and now Sydney) and the huge success of the Sydney restaurant opening last year.
While the last ten years has seen the tapas trend come and go and back again (the recent openings of Bomba and Bar Nacional show that tapas is hot again in 2013), one thing that has not changed is the focus of chef and owner Frank Camorra on translating Spanish cuisine and the energy of tapas culture to Australia. For me, MoVida exists outside of trends, this is is about delivering delicious, authentic Spanish dishes, along with sherry and red wine (my favourite tapas tipples), with great service.
The name MoVida comes from La Movida Madrileña, an emergence of a new Spanish identity after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, capturing a freedom of expression and breaking of former taboos through art, media and film. It is this energy and Spanish spirit that is at the heart of each MoVida and what has driven it to become one of Melbourne’s cultural icons.
The original Bar de Tapas, tucked away on one of Melbourne’s classic laneways, with an ever changing background of wild and colourful graffiti, has become the patriarch of the MoVida group and still stands as the benchmark. The dining room is dim and cosy, in that classic European way, and is almost always booked out weeks, if not months, in advance, but there are bar tables set aside for walk-ins, so always try your luck. Failing a seat at the original, the aptly named MoVida Next Door takes no reservations for dinner, and tends to have a shorter wait. While there are similarities, the original Bar de Tapas feels more like a restaurant, with a more refined and elevated menu, while Next Door captures that original essence of a tapas bar. Whichever you end up dining in, you will walk away sufficiently impressed; it is this consistency across each that has helped its longevity.
An evening of tapas should always begin with a sherry, before launching in to graze through the menu, of which you will find it hard not to order everything. The Tapas are individual serves and feature many Iberian, as well as Movida’s, signature dishes. Every tapas experience should feature a crisp croqueta; at Next Door it might come with a creamy filling of wild mushrooms, whereas Bar de Tapas elevates the humble croqueta with a filling of morcilla (spiced black sausage) and apple. Next Door features the other well-known MoVida fried classic, the Bomba, a ball of mashed potato, with a centre of spicy chorizo, crumbed and fried, drizzled with an aioli-esque brava sauce and a hit of smoky mojo picon sauce. A chicken escabache (chicken poached and cooled in a vinegar based liquid) is served cold, as it should be, and sandwiched between leaves of crisp toast, another perfect morsel.
Next Door continues to focus on traditional favourites like the bocadillo de chorizo, which could be classed as a Spanish slider, but that would be missing the point. A thick, juicy wedge of chorizo that will have you remembering how good chorizo can be, with a tangle of pickled piparra peppers to cut through the rich, fattiness of the meat, sandwiched between a chewy bun. A chicken skewer grasps the perfection of simplicity with tender chicken, laced with smoked paprika and oregano, and that smoky essence from the charcoal grill; one of Frank Camorra’s recipes that I make frequently at home. Their tortilla is the best omelette you will eat (not to be confused with the Mexican tortilla); confit potatoes and onions, topped with egg, and cooked to wobbly perfection.
Bar de Tapas takes a step in a different direction by reinterpreting traditional tapas, starting with what is arguably MoVida’s signature dish, the anchoa. A hand-filleted anchovy, a world away from the ones in jars that many people dislike, laid on a crouton and topped with a scoop of smoked tomato sorbet. This simple, but technical, dish is perfection on a plate; the salty punch of anchovy, giving way to the acidic tang and coolness of the sorbet, along with a burst of flavour from a scattering of capers and the texture from the crispness of the crouton. One of the more recent reinventions are the quince paste cigars, tubes of dehydrated quince paste, which are at once crisp, chewy and tangy, filled with whipped goat’s cheese.
Moving through the menu, the Raciones are larger dishes, starter sized and designed to share. Next Door likes to focus on more simple and traditional dishes like charcuterie, chargrilled meat and seafood (the chargrilled prawns are amazing) and salads, while Bar de Tapas showcases some of their best dishes. Cecina is paper-thin slices of air-dried wagyu, beautifully cured, with a poached egg, begging to be burst and have its yolk run through the wagyu, finished with an earthy truffle foam. A rich dish, but easily one of the best on the menu, and easy to see why it won ‘Dish of the Year’ at the 2007 Good Food Guide awards.
A dish I cook frequently at home during the cold months of winter is the beef cheeks, slow cooked in sweet Pedro Ximenez until meltingly tender. The combination of the hearty cheek, falling apart with a nudge from your knife, the sticky sherry-based jus and the intense cauliflower puree is sublime, and a ‘must order’ on any visit (and worth cooking at home, recipe here). Another dish that recalls the warmth and comfort of a winter fire are the oven roasted portobello mushrooms, seasoned with garlic and thyme and finished with a kick of sherry vinegar.
Desserts always feature churros with decadent hot chocolate to dip them into, a great way to end the meal if you do not think you have any room left for dessert. However the highlight for me has been the goat’s milk cheesecake (from Next Door), rich but with the tang of the goat’s cheese to lighten it up, with an added boost from the refreshing blackberry sorbet. Another traditional classic at Bar de Tapas is the flan, better known in previous decades as crème caramel, with the bitter caramel oozing down over the baked custard, with spiced pastries on the side.
With 2013′s crowd of tapas bars opening recently, it looks like we are going to have another Spanish summer in Melbourne, but the new kids on the block will have a hard journey ahead to match the bar set by MoVida. It is the heart and soul behind MoVida, along with the consistency seen across multiple visits, that keeps MoVida fresh and unique even after a decade. There is nothing so quintessentially Melbourne as treading the cobblestones of Hosier Lane and admiring the multicoloured art spread across the walls before heading to either Bar de Tapas or Next Door to feast on an array of tapas and raciones with some fantastic Spanish sherries and red wine to accompany them. It is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of new openings in Melbourne, but for me MoVida holds so many fond memories of past occasions that it will always be somewhere I am drawn back to. Here is to another ten years.