Friday, 21 June 2013

Acland St Cantina, St Kilda, Melbourne

Tucked away underneath the Prince of Wales hotel in St Kilda is a sprawling, vibrant hub of activity. Looking up from the main drag of Fitzroy st there is not much to see except the beckon of a small, LED sign that glows the letters ASC into the night. Those letters stand for Acland St Cantina, a recent addition to the Mexican Food revolution happening all over Australia.

If the snappy typography, design and decor brings you in, the diversity of their offerings (in typical 'Cantina' fashion) make you stay. The Cantina is a bit of a maze - do some exploring and you will come across diner-style dining, take-away ready meals, snacks, pastries and cook-at-home packs, mexi-mart groceries, a classier dining area out the back, drinks, bars, DJ's late at night, liquor store, wine cellar with a private dining area, and hidden enclaves. 

Acland St Cantina St Kilda Melbourne Australia mexican restaurant

Dining Room Acland St Cantina St Kilda Melbourne Australia mexican restaurant

Wine Cellar Dining Room Acland St Cantina St Kilda Melbourne Australia mexican restaurant

For those of you thinking 'not another Mexican joint', although a little late off the finish line ASC is shaping up to be my new favourite dining venue. Tex-mex style burritos and tacos infused with Modern Australian flair don't quite cut it with the discerning Melbourne dining scene, and ASC, recognising this, has brought a little more to la mesa. House-made pastries filled with dulce de leche, apples and topped with pumpkin seeds; around 6 flavours of ice cream and gelato such as the salted caramel, sticky and sweet with the tang of a caramel cooked until dark and intense; Cuban sandwiches;  Peruvian Prickly Pear gazpacho, Mexican cheese fondue and Bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

Acland St Cantina St Kilda Melbourne Australia mexican restaurant

The last time I had a Cuban sandwich was in its 'hometown': Ybor City, Florida. Since then, I have gradually stopped ordering them as no one has been able to replicate the rich, soft meat, tangy pickles and sharp mustard shrouded by soft, pillowy cuban bread, slightly crisp on the outside. When our server told us it was their most popular order, I threw my usual caution to the wind. Slathered with cheese and filled with soft, saucy pulled pork, their 'Cubano' ($15 with a serve of taro chips) is by far the best rendition of that particular sandwich I have had. I didn't think it could be better than those street side, fresh, hot sandwiches straight from the hands of those whose ancestors invented it, but to my utter surprise I was wrong. There is a new reason to travel to St Kilda Arty folk, hippies and backpackers - and that reason comes in the form of a Cuban sandwich. 

The Cubano Pulled Pork Cuban Sandwich pickeld jalapenos cheese mustard Acland St Cantina St Kilda Melbourne Australia mexican restaurant

Of course, Acland Street Cantina is at its heart a Mexican restaurant, so, not to be outdone by their Cuban counterparts, their Mexican and Spanish offerings are equally mindblowing. Next up to the plate was the Bohemia braised Lamb short rib Empanadas with Black Mission Fig Mole ($14 for two). The heavily enriched pastry stretched over shredded, spiced lamb - but the highlight was the always intriguing mole (mole-ay) sauce. Mole is an ancient Mayan dish, with varieties from Oaxaca commonly having over 30 ingredients. It is a very difficult sauce to master, as the sheer amount of contrasting flavours need very careful balancing, or else it is easy to end up with something that tastes like the entire spice cupboard has been emptied into the pot wantonly. Luckily, the Mole at ASC is mildly sweet, with perfectly balanced spices that work in harmony with the chocolate undertones. Not a sauce for everyone, Mole has a flavour unlike anything else in any other cuisine. It is perhaps an acquired taste - but if there is a place one should start, it should be somewhere that can harmonize the complex sauce with a myriad of other flavours in such a way as ASC have managed. 

Braised Lamb Short Rib Empanadas with Black Mission Fig Mole, queso fresco Acland St Cantina St Kilda Melbourne Australia mexican restaurant

Next up is the ubiquitous Quesadilla, but a few rare ingredients make this dish a standout on the menu. Spinach tortilla pressed and filled with cheese, spinach, epazote, topped with a huitlacoche crema, wild mushroom and corn salsa, scattered with crumbled queso fresco ($14). A flavour rare on this side of the world, huitlacoche (corn smut) is unmistakeably delicious, earthy and truffle-like. Having never had epazote before, I was interested to try, but a little disappointed I was unable to isolate the flavour. The whole dish is full of such unique flavours it was impossible to identify the specific taste. However the entire dish was unique and memorable - and harmonised so well that the taste of each component was elevated to a level way above the sum of its parts. 

Spinach epazote wild mushroom quesadilla with quesa fresco corn and huitlacoche Acland St Cantina St Kilda Melbourne Australia mexican restaurant

For sweets, it is impossible to go wrong. Everything I tasted was verging on sublime - their pastries and sweet breads, filled with sweet and creamy dulce de leche or simply rolled in sugar fresh out of the oven. The dough is mildy sweet and extraordinarily buttery, melting in your mouth. The house-made ice creams are rich and intense, bursting with flavour and full of a creaminess only possible when using fresh, real ingredients. 

Don't forget they do breakfast - some dishes verge on tex-mex, but are delicious all the same. Chilaquiles, breakfast quesadillas, the hearty huevos rancheros (Ranchers Eggs). Drinks are refreshing and varied - from their tamarind ginger cooler to their milky horchata ($4). The horchata is surprisingly tangy and acidic, leaning more towards the yoghurty sweetness of an Indian lassi than the smooth, slightly spiced creaminess you usually find in the sweet, rice based beverage. This perhaps suits the food better - just as a lassi is used to cool the intense fieriness of curry, this horchata was a perfect tangy counterbalance to the sweetness of the pulled pork, soothing the mild sting of the pickled jalapeƱos. 

The staff are friendly, the food is cheap, the offerings are at the top of their field - the decor is vibrant and well-suited, the venue is large and diverse enough to suit any meal, any time, and any group. Definitely worth a visit, it may just turn into your local haunt as it has for me. 

Acland St. Cantina on Urbanspoon