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Archive for February, 2010

Kingfish tataki

In our town, we revel in our Food Capital status. And so we should. At any hour, we can partake of the great multi-culti banquet that built our reputation. We can taste the authentic stuff or sup on elite spins of every folk cuisine from Cambodia to Kabul.

But there’s one continent that’s a little under-represented. God, how I miss the Americas on a plate.

My homesick stomach led me to Nacional in Albert Park. Here, Chef Leena Monson is quietly playing with broad American flavours as any hip New York chef from the West Village to Williamsburg might. But the American undercurrents of this menu have been overlooked since a 2009 debut. These undercurrents are easy to miss. On the face of it, Nacional could pass for another chic, inner-suburban joint. The interior and ambience screech Melbourne, from the artfully designed lighting to the impeccable row of tea canisters from T2. At breakfast and lunch, Nacional balances the cafe-restaurant divide with grace. At dinner time, Monson lets loose with the remarkable American flavours about which she is clearly passionate. Meat matched with fruit, like a daily special on the board of pork chops and peach, is a quintessentially American marriage. From there, her unions go South in the best way. From New Orleans, we have BBQ prawns and grilled corn bread. A south-west and Central American influence creates blue corn-crusted soft-shell crab with mashed avocado and lime. Then, we really cross the border with ingredients and condiments like annatto, chipotle and chimichurri.

Prepared for our Tex-Mex, Cajun, mid-west and Central American fusion, we order from a list that comprises 38 beers. The wine list is hardly underdone. But, tonight, it’s time for a Corona.

Eager to sample Monson’s talents broadly, we order from the printed menu. Here the focus is on small plates designed for sharing at around the $18 mark.

Four pieces of complimentary warm grilled flat bread arrive unadorned shortly after our beers. A good start.

Spiced gazpacho with crab salsa, served in an oversized shot glass was a great appetiser. The tomato base was nicely spiced and avoided the chunkiness of clumsier gazpachos. Smoked paprika cured kingfish tataki (pictured), annatto oil and lemon thyme was less successful. The just-cooked thin slices of fish were light on the smoky flavour suggested by the inclusion of the paprika. Likewise, the influence of annatto was negligible. This colour and flavour enhancer derived from the achiote tree is the South American equivalent of turmeric. It was somewhat lost. A squeeze of lime across the plate before it hit the pass would really bring it out and balance a dish that deserves to shine.

The roast pork belly with pickled watermelon rind again suffers from a lack of execution. But, the concept is wonderful. On our visit the pork arrives overcooked and dry, adorned with chunks of superbly flavoured watermelon rind. The chicken escabeche with black garlic had Partner giving me that “Why don’t you cook this?” look. It was near perfect. A real stand out, however, is the beef pincho with chimichurri. It’s not often a girl has something of such quality in her mouth. The chimichurri, a South American salsa verde, is spot on, the perfect counterpoint to nicely cooked skewers of quality beef.

Nacional has all the right ducks in a row, but the pistol’s just not always firing. With a little daring and a touch more care, this new gunslinger could command a fan base of Modern American foodies.

Nacional, 36 Mills Street, Albert Park Ph: (03) 9645 0977

$110 for two, including two beers each.

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