Melbourne’s small bars get talked of endlessly, though there are plenty of cosy and rustic bars to go to in Sydney if you know where to look. What is uniquely Melbourne are cafe laneways off Flinders Lane: narrow passageways crammed with a dozen or more eateries cheek-by jowl down both sides. Centre laneway is tight and grungy with tiny tables outside pint-sized restaurants; as I passed through a jazz trio was playing down one end serenading above the buzz. Across the way Degraves Lane is a little more open, with diners huddling beneath giant umbrellas as waiters scurry back and forth. Both lanes are packed with people eating, drinking and chatting, as always on a Saturday morning.

However I decided to keep on wandering along Flinders St, with the vague goal of gazing at the menu of The Press Club restaurant. On the way I literally stumbled across MoVida, a leading edge tapas restaurant credited with establishing the small plate concept in modern Melbourne dining. Open since 2003 and rated One Hat by latest The Age Good Food Guide, I was surprised to find it open for Saturday lunch and talked myself into going in. It wasn’t a hard sell.

MoVida is sensational. I’ve long believed that entrees allow chefs far more freedom to show off their creativity than mains, and MoVida is proof of concept. The space is superb too, with the small and warmly-decored high ceiling room never feeling too cramped. The highlight for solo diners is the long and comfortable bar that runs along one half of the restaurant, and you don’t need a reservation for one of its high stools.

The menu is in two parts: tapa, individual morsels that are sold per unit; and rationes, entree-sized dishes that are designed to be shared. After a bit of consultation with my waiter I decided two tapas and two rationes would be enough, and in fact it was more than plenty. At just $45 for the food it’s brilliant value as well! From ten choices of tapa and sixteen rationes (plus a few specials of the day) I opted for:

Roasted scallop with jamon and potato foam – served on a single shell is a plump scallop on a sliver of jamon ham, doused in the potato foam. The foam dominates but that’s no bad thing, it’s amazingly potato-y yet light.

Baby leek wrapped in brik pastry served with chicken liver parfait – a triumph of skill and design. A slender shoot of leek is encased in a cylinder of crisp pastry and nestled between two shining blobs of rich fresh parfait, which is just the right side of melting. With a drizzle of honey underneath it’s a sublime match of flavour and texture, the wafers of crouton the only distraction (too hard and crispy).

Smoked spanish mackerel with pine nut gazpacho sorbet – WOW. Thin slices of delicious and unsalty mackerel drizzled with a white sauce and a scattering of toasted pine nuts… and that sorbet. If pine nut ice cream sounds like an odd idea then get yourself to MoVida and check it out: it’s superb. The highlight of the meal for me, frankly!

Braised beef cheek in Pedro Ximinez on cauliflower puree – no tricks or fancy presentation here, just meltingly good beef on a tasty puree. A large portion too.

Other menu options sounded inviting but I was stuffed by this stage. Five reasons to return: Hunter Valley quail, partially boned, crumbed and filled with jamon and Mahon cheese; roast lamb cutlet encased in a Catalan pork and paprika pate; spicy steak tartare of raw grass-fed Wagyu beef; white beans garnished with berkshire pork belly, chorizo and black puddling; Andalucian sweet sour farmed rabbit legs with almonds.

Naturally it has an excellent wine list with several good options by the glass (most in the $10-13 range). I’m sure I’ve read whispers in the food press that MoVida might establish an outpost in Sydney, which would be a very, very good thing. However for now us northerners will have to schedule a trip to Melbourne to try this fantastic kind of food.

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