305 Cleveland St
Redfern, NSW 2016
Movida was the restaurant that kickstarted my love affair with wine bars and fine dining over 10 years ago. And although I’ve lost count of the number of excellent meals I’ve had since, Movida will always hold a special place in my heart for introducing me to the magic that is good Spanish cooking. Unfortunately that love has lain rather dormant since my move to Sydney, which is well-known for not having much in the way of authentic Spanish cuisine. However all that may change with the opening of La Salut, which promises an authentic Spanish tapas bar experience inspired by ‘a hot summer spent in Barcelona’, by a chef who’s spent 7 years at Movida no less!
Located in what was previously the old sports bar of the Norfolk House and Hotel, La Salut is warm and snazzy, and about as far as you can get from its previous incarnation as a grungy pub with sticky floors. Those with sharp eyes will notice that the wine bar also features an attached bottle shop, just in case you want to take a bit of the experience home.
Those who know me however will be well aware of the fact that I’m much more interested in what there is to eat, and the menu here is everything I love – short, punchy, and seasonal – and I want one of everything. After a good quarter of an hour agonising, I decided to knock off the croquettes, mussels with chips, and a classic little bite of anchovy with tomato and manchego. It’s a very bittersweet start to the meal, but definitely a promising sign of things to come.
I rarely drink alcohol, but I am partial to a glass of vermouth when it’s available. And not only does La Salut have vermouth, they even have a dedicated vermouth section in their whopper of a 51-page wine list. After a quick chat with our knowledgeable waitron, I was recommended a glass of the Muz ($12), a sweet red vermouth that’s served with anchovy-stuffed olives. Like all good vermouths (in my book), each sip was sweet and rich, the fruit balanced out by the astringent botanicals. I usually tend to go with a slice of orange in my drink, but the swap for olive was a clever move that rounded out the syrup with a hint of brine. Plus, the olives themselves were super delicious – so much umami in each bite!
To go with the drinks – a complimentary serve of crunchy fried corn kernels.
I am on the record for not being a fan of paying for bread at restaurants; not only was I brought up in Melbourne where complimentary bread is the norm at the nicer establishments, that time where I paid $3.5 for half a slice of sourdough was the final nail in the coffin. But with that said, I have no issue with paying for the good stuff, and the good stuff this Bread Basket ($5) was. For the very reasonable price, we were served a bounty of sourdough and baguette, still warm from the oven. With crunchy crusts and fluffy, doughy centres, the bread was great even on its own, but was of course made better by a generous smear of milky butter, sprinkled liberally with sea salt flakes. Don’t forget to save some for the salty snacks and swiping through all the sauces that come with the dishes though!
Speaking of salty snacks, is there much better than a plate of Jamon Serrano ($18)? Sliced fresh to order, the velvety, translucent slices with their generous edging of fat melted in the mouth with a luscious nuttiness.
From the sea came a dainty tartare of Tuna, Vizcaina, Wasabi ($18), looking for the world like a trove of glistening rubies. The fish was fresh and plump, with delicately savoury notes from the traditional Basque sauce made from red onion and peppers, and a surprising hint of pungency from the wasabi at the tail.
Then came the parade of pincho – snacks served on skewers – in rapid succession. First off the ranks was the Swordfish Pincho ($9ea), the chunks of firm but flaky white fish painted with a subtly sweet sauce of greens and carrots, and given a once-over by the smoke of the grill.
Comparatively, the Pork Neck Pincho ($8ea) is much more of an attention-grab, with its fatty, smoky succulence. The cluey inclusion of a clove of pickled garlic should also be taken advantage of, and little nibbles on it provide a necessary counterpoint to the richness of the meat.
The Hanger and Liver Pincho ($9ea) is the most adventurous one of the lot, and although I tend to have a bit of an issue with eating liver wholesale rather than in pâté form, this was a delightful exception. The alternating pieces of liver and steak was an engaging back-and-forth between the satisfying juiciness of a quality cut of beef, and the contrasting creaminess of a well-cooked piece of offal.
But when it comes to finger food, nothing beats the Quail, Morcilla Crumb, Radish ($12, half). The dainty bird, with its carefully brined meat and light batter, is fried chicken for the genteel. The cucumber pickles are replaced with a pleasantly crunchy radish alternative, and the heavily fire-reliant cooking methods of the kitchen come through in the blistered padron pepper (they were out of morcilla on that day). But despite all the highbrow trappings, this has all the vulgar enjoyment of a good piece of fried chicken. The meat is juicy, the batter is salty, and licking your fingers after sucking every last bit of meat off the bone is absolutely mandatory.
Wrapping up our meal is the more substantial Butifarra, Clams, Beans ($30). This is a classic example of the mar i muntanya – sea and mountain – dishes characteristic of the Catalan region. The firm and meaty, but still delightfully fatty pork sausage is flavoured subtly with fennel seeds, and cooked over the flames for a smoky char. It’s then tumbled over a thick stew of creamy white beans dressed with white wine vinegar and tinned clams. It’s a simple, hearty dish that lets all the individual ingredients shine. My only complaint? Needs more clams.
With just enough room for dessert, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to try the only offering on the menu – the Almond and Macadamia Tart ($12). The shell is exactly how I like it; it’s light and crisp, and not so buttery that it overwhelms the filling. The downside however is that it’s rather hard to attack with the spoon, but once you get through, the smooth, nutty centre is an apt reward. But my favourite part of all would have to be the tender-crisp peaches, soaked in vermouth and tasting of long summer afternoons. It’s an indulgent yet elegant ending to the meal.
On paper, La Salut is everything I love in a wine bar – high quality sharable food and a nice selection of vermouth in a relaxed but sophisticated setting. Yet despite that, I left feeling a little underwhelmed with the experience as a whole. It’s hard to describe what’s missing; it’s almost feels like the restaurant is holding itself back from truly letting loose and expressing itself, and as a result, felt rather sterile and lacking in personality. This was especially evident when juxtaposed with the menu, which promises ample fun in the form of long, languid meals of snacks and drinks shared with friends. I found plenty to like, but not enough to fall in love.
Rating: 14.5/20 – friendzoned.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.