How long should you wait before reviewing a restaurant? Should you get in there early to trump the newspapers, or should you wait a few weeks for the soft openings to subside and the place to ‘find its feet’?
By opening its doors, isn’t an eatery opening itself up to critical attention? Are we really supposed to part with our cash and accept whatever comes because the venue is new and therefore vulnerable to the incessantly fault-finding public?
Or should camera-wielding bloggers back off and, instead of criticising, find reason to celebrate anyone with the guts to plough an insane amount of money, time and hardwork into opening on the incredibly tough, full-to-bursting Melbourne food scene.
Chances are, anyone bothering to read a food blog such as ours will have an opinion on this, as we found that out the hard way when we came under fire for our (even-handed and considered) review of Virginia Plains, which we posted a few weeks into the Flinders Lane establishment’s life.
We thought the backlash was unfair, considering our points had nothing to do with how long the place had been open, and were tempered with some positives. If you don’t believe us, please take a look here. Well, whichever side of the fence you fall on, it seems we are going to come up against the unwritten rule pertaining to early-day reviews one again.
Acland St Cantina – an all-day Mexican eatery from Melbourne Pub Group behemoth Paul Wilson – has only been open a couple of weeks, but youth is no excuse for possibly one of the worst dining experiences we have ever encountered. Let’s deal with the food (actually pretty good) later and, for now, address the litany of customer service disasters.
We arrived at the ex-Prince Wine Store and headed down to the revamped bar area. Brightly lit and full of colour, trying to incite a lively Mexican atmosphere, one half was busy, one half was empty – this is something to do with licensing. That might be, and of course it doesn’t matter as much at breakfast, but it kind of looks a bit odd at 8:30pm at night. Declining the one table available (at the end of a dark corridor outside the toilets, yes, really) we left our name with someone who seemed to know what was going on. In fact he told us that, at most, we would have a half hour wait. Not fancying the stark reality of the bar, we headed a few doors down to Il Fornaio, mainly because ‘man in charge’ said he would give us a call when a table in the main dining room came available. An hour and ten minutes later, no table.
So we head back, only to be met with blank faces and a repeat of our previous welcome. When the penny dropped that we had already been in and registered our interest in dining we were offered (sans any kind of apology) two rather cramped seats at the bar. We accepted. Apparently the table he had set aside for us hadn’t left yet. Hmmm…
Now, some bars are very fun to perch at – Chin Chin and Casa Ciuccio for example – as are some kitchen passes – Huxtable and Cumulus Inc for example. You perch on your stool admiring skill, precision and craftmanship – a well-oiled ship smashing through a busy service. You do not want to witness dirty work services and a barman who (and we do not exaggerate here) spends the evening with his hands in his greasy hair, examining the inside and soles of his shoes and, worst of all, repeatedly licking and dipping his fingers in a skanky-looking tray of caster sugar or sherbet or whatever it was that glasses were being dipped into. It was stomach churning.
A girl came over and shouted about the menu – it wasn’t very enlightening, but from what we could make out there are: small snacks (cheapest one is $10, ouch); ceviches; cheesy baked dishes – described as a kind of fondue; an array of tacos, empanadas and tamales etc; main dishes (BBQ, grilled and spit-roasted meats and fish); veggies and sides; and desserts.
Past hunger we opted for the Baja-fried fish tacos with slaw and chiptole mayo and the ‘authentic Al Pastor’ – spit-roasted pork with pineapple salsa. Also the Bohemia- braised lamb short ribs empanadas with Mission fig black mole, and bravas potatoes with two sauces. Oh, and the organic chorizo, chilli de aqua and dark beer sauce. We asked what the chilli de aqua was. ‘Shouting waitress’ wasn’t sure, but after some shouting conversation with another member of staff who similarly didn’t seem to give a shit we were told it was a jalapeno (I have since learnt it is actually spelt chilli de agua and is a chilli grown in Oaxaca).
The two rounds of tacos came out first – ‘shouting waitress’ shouted that she would get us side plates, but we were almost done by the time we managed to flag down someone who was prepared to get us cutlery and napkins. You know, the kind of stuff that dresses a table. We had to get the red and green hot sauces ourselves from the incredibly lovely and friendly kitchen porter who happened to be stocking one of the service stations. To do ‘shouting waitress’ credit, she did apologise come the end of the meal.
The tacos were tasty, in fact the tortillas were by far some of the freshest I have ever had. It would have been nice if they were warm, but they held together well and were spongy- light. The salsa was more of a salad with large chunks of pineapple and halved cherry tomatoes, but overall the flavours were good.
The empanadas were a bit dry – the butter pastry was kind of dense and there was only just enough mole (sweet, figgy and viscous) to make them swallowable. However, the lamb filling was rich and the caramelised fig on top added more textural interest.
Then, strangely, the items we thought would open the meal came at the end. The queso fundido – lovely chunks of cumin-flecked chorizo floating inexplicably in a watery, cheese sauce with a few nachos on the side to help scoop up the mess – and the crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside potatoes with a smattering of two sauces – aiolo and easy-on- the-paprika red sauce.
Halfway through all this, an extra glass of wine appeared in front of us. No apologies, and nothing for the sober member of the party. Me. Bit odd, but free booze is free booze, according to my wayward other half. By the way, when I asked what soft drinks they had, I was handed a Jarritos cola. I didn’t seem to have a choice in the matter.
The rest of the evening wound up in a blur of passive aggressive resentment – on both sides. Luckily the bill didn’t come to that much (no drinks appeared on it, but no explanation came as to why) and finally our plates that we had started stacking up next to us were cleared.
On my way to the bathroom, I counted a maximum of 70 covers, nine floor staff and a distinct lack of efficient service taking place. Maybe it was all being lavished on Mr Wilson, who had paid a visit that evening. And then I came across the saddest sight of the night. A man sitting eating his dinner in the corridor, illuminated only by the harsh light emitting from the swing door of the nearby toilets. Now, eating out is supposed to be an experience, if I wanted to watch people go relieve themselves I would eat more meals in a bus shelter.
Notes on decor – the hacienda-style grills scattered around the place mean it’s not just the patrons in the corridor who get to look at the signs for the ladies’ and gents’ lavs. The jail aesthetic didn’t really do it for us, but there is a pretty good Day of the Dead skull on one wall. I note that the Broadsheet reviewer says it casts an ‘all-seeing, ghoulish gaze onto patrons’, perhaps it would be better directed on the staff.