11 May, 2009

De Los Santos

175 Brunswick St, Fitzroy; 03 9417 1567

I could sum up my visit to De Los Santos in the words of a close, food-loving friend: 'I guess everywhere can't be fabulous'. As I was considering how to write the restaurant up, I was struggling to come up with the words that indicated disappointment, but didn't engender a completely negative impression of the place. And 'not fabulous' is an indirect, but accurate, choice of words, since it wasn't wholly bad either. Indeed, its online presence features some wholly glowing reviews. Dining out is nearly always a balance of positives and negatives; on this occasion negatives seemed to come in twos and thereby outweigh the positives.

I was extremely enthusiastic about dinner. Their menu is available online, and I wondered how I'd limit my tapas selection sufficiently in order to leave room for paella and dessert, all of which I considered must-haves.

We started well with the tapas: we chose a special (not photographed), featuring chorizo, beans and morcilla (otherwise known as blood sausage), in a tomatoey sauce. This was just delicious; the chorizo was quite spicy, the beans were cooked to spot-on firmness, and the morcilla provided a balanced saltiness.

Our second tapas - bola da patata - was also wonderful. Potato dumplings - firmer than gnocchi but not as crispy as baked spuds - sopped up a porcini sauce and fat mushrooms were wonderfully garlicky.
We chose the seafood paella - with mussels, calamari, prawns and fish - over the mixed meat version - which comes with chicken, lamb and chorizo. Paella's a filling dish and I thought we'd be better served with the lighter seafood. Understandably, the minimum paella order is for two (it's served at the table in its paellera), and at $26 a head that kind of makes it a $52 main. The traditional pan crisps a layer of rice as it sticks to the bottom. This rice, while very tasty, was a little mushier than crisp (perhaps too much broth, although it wasn't over moist).The disappointment was the seafood. The prawns, although massive, were sinewy rather than succulent, and the calamari tasted emphatically of nothing. The clams shared the attribute of size with the prawns, but one tasted purely of seawater. I surmise that the rice is cooked en masse, and the relevant extras added according to each order.

Potentially, the paella con pollo y cordero would have been a better choice on the night, but then again, you can't get much more signature dish than paella marinera at a Spanish restaurant, so I'd expect it to be more reliable.

Eager to reclaim the authentic dining experience I'd been dreaming of, I ordered the crema catalana for dessert. It's a dish that when done well is unmissable, but when less than skilfully is at best forgettable. The key to great crema catalana is delicacy of flavour, an impossibly smooth custard releasing hints of vanilla, cinnamon or zest. The caramelised top cracked open enticingly, but the custard was bland, flavoured mainly by the raspberries layering the bottom, and exhibited worringly inconsistent temperature.
Upon request, our bill was brought to the table without comment or eye contact; when we left, we passed five wait staff, none of whom offered any kind of farewell. One of those incidents, after a meal of complete food, wouldn't rate a mention. Similarly, a lack of farewell from one staff member already occupied I can forgive, but from all five indicates a certain lack of awareness of the proper relationship between diner and waiter.

I think my big disappointment was less with the quality of food - as we've established, it can't always be fabulous - but that this was so far away from an authentic Spanish cuisine experience. Where is that to be had in Melbourne?


  1. I know what you mean about finding the words to describe this kind of experience, am struggling with a similar problem in a review am currently writing about Residential.

    De Los Santos is the home of some of my best and worst dinning experiences over the years. The worst was a hot plate of sizzling prawns that spat into my eye (it was how they dealt with it - numbed shock and I'm gasping "I'm not going to sue you - I just need some first aid pronto"...the best involved a recently baked tarte tartin that still brings a smile to my face.

    Since I was fortunately not permanently blinded, I go there about once a year purely for nostalgia. Though that wonderful tarte tartin has never appeared again.

  2. Cheers AOF. It does seem to be a polarising place - I hunted out a few more reviews and there are those that lambast the restaurant and those that laud it. I felt certain while I was there that it could just have easily been wonderful (the tapas demonstrated that) as mediocre, and hence didn't feel comfortable writing it off from one visit.

    As one friend said, however, in this town, it's hard to find time to go back for another hopeful look when there are so many other places to try.

    I like some of the things you've mentioned in your review of Residential - I'll pop some separate comments on there.