‘Cantina’ is a flexible word—it can describe a bar room, salon, wine shop, canteen, cellar, diner or take away joint. Since chef/director Paul Wilson and creative director and part-owner Julian Gerner’s new Mexican offering embodies all these things, the title Acland St Cantina is perfectly fitting.
“The word cantina means a basement eatery in both Italian and Spanish. That’s what this is, an everyday eating house, in all senses of the word”, explains Gerner, the man who can lay claim to a fair share of the success of the Albert Park Hotel, Middle Park Hotel and the Newmarket. Between sentences he tucks into a breakfast ham and cheese tortilla with jalapenos, frijoles and tomatillo sauce, from the establishment’s more casual, café-style menu. In a bid to fend off tiredness that lingers from the kitchen’s dinner service soft opening the previous night, Gerner washes his food down with the Cantina’s house blend of coffee, sourced from Costa Rica, Brazil, Guatemala and Papua New Guinea, served Americano style. We are sitting atop candy coloured stools, chosen for their likeness to Mexico City’s 1968 Olympic campaign, in the light-filled, front section of the basement Cantina.
After escaping to Corona’s idyllic beachfront house La Casa for some R&R (relaxing and recipe testing), Gerner may have eased into things with his team, but has hit the ground running for 2013.
Since acquiring St Kilda’s famous institution, Prince of Wales, last year, Gerner and chef Paul Wilson set about transforming the former home of the Russian-themed Mink Bar and adjacent Prince Wine Cellar into something innovative and fresh. The result? A full service breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper and drinks diner, serving fuss-free and affordable Mexican fare. Once in full swing, the Cantina will be open from 7am right through until 3am, seven days a week.
The idea behind the Cantina, that (almost) never sleeps, is to create a lively, frenetic space, with something to offer a wide range of patrons, many of whom fall outside of Melbourne’s traditional foodie community. Boasting two separate menus and seating sections, the Cantina aims to please the local resident looking to grab a quick breakfast or lunch for under 20 bucks, the late night clubber or tired hospitality worker in search of a quality alternative to a cheeky kebab and a knock off drink, and diners looking for a relaxed but bustling spot for communal feasting. Although it might sound confusing, in actualisation it just works—kind of like the unpretentious, hands-on cuisine on offer.
“Mexican food is baroque. It doesn’t make sense,” enthuses chef Wilson. “When you ask a Mexican person to explain a dish like mole, (pronounced mo-lay, an Ancient Mayan sauce based dish featured on the menu) they ask you how they could possibly put it into words! It’s all about explosive flavours and contradictions. It is somehow spicy, sweet, simple and robust, all at once.”
“Before my research trip through Mexico though I thought The Newmarket had a fairly pared back, simple menu. That menu was developed primarily through remote research, where as the Cantina’s is the result of first-hand observation. It’s not trendy food, these days people see right through that”, he explains.
Where Mexican food has become a major fad in the city in the last year, Wilson insists the Cantina’s menu is more authentic than most, spending time in Mexico and then finalising the menu and recipe testing dishes with his team at La Casa. “La Casa has such a convivial and relaxed vibe that it stimulates positive energy and inspiration. I created three new dishes [there] because I was in a good head space,” says Wilson of his week by the beach in the lead-up to the restaurant’s opening.
Alongside familiar favourites like tacos and quesadillas, diners can expect a focus on organic, healthy ingredients like super foods quinoa and corn, without which Wilson reckons the Mexican way of life would fail to function. Unusual and less calorie friendly additions include Mexico’s answer to fondue, Queso Fundido, and an indulgent salted caramel ice cream churros taco for dessert. Washed down with house wine priced at a mere $6 a glass, a shot of one of over 20 tequilas, a lolly coloured Latin soft drink, refreshing beer or even a chilli infused hot chocolate, it’s difficult to walk away hankering for more.
NIght owls looking to extend their stay at the Cantina can wander behind the curtain that divides the space to enjoy a darker, moodier vibe, where live music with a global hip hop theme will soon take over post-sunset. Designed by architects Six Degrees, with a nod to both the Mink Bar’s former glory and Mexico in mind, the back area is all about the little details. Restored, original street art by St Kilda’s Marcus Davidson lines the walls, some of the furniture was salvaged by Gerner after he found it in an old Italian restaurant and an imposing Day of the Dead, mosaic skull overlooks the space, casting an all seeing, ghoulish gaze onto patrons.
Whilst every carefully selected element of the Acland St Cantina has a tale to tell, Gerner reckons the best stories are the ones that haven’t even happened yet.
“The real fun will be in the eating, drinking and other activities soon to go on here,” he says with a wink.
Whatever those stories might be, with the festive fit out, hearty food and infectious passion that filters down through every aspect of the Cantina, we’re pretty sure we want to be a part of them.
Late last year just before the Acland St Cantina opened, Broadsheet and Corona sent some of the Cantina team to idyllic La Casa for some time to finalise the menu and test recipes by the beach before returning to Melbourne for the opening of the restaurant. We made a video of their time there. Watch it here.