A TASTE OF SAN SEBASTIAN

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by AJ Place

With our recent move to Melbourne and the inner west, I have become an avid social media follower of all things food and drink, this side of the (Maribyrnong) river. Coming across the new Sebastian Beach Grill and Bar in Williamstown on my scrolls, I booked Sunday lunch on a weekend when scary daughter from Adelaide was in town, coaxing us outside Seddon’s borders.

Having not previously explored past the shopping precinct, Williamstown Beach was a revelation to us newbies. We had a, ‘who knew this fabulous area was here?’ moment – everybody it seems, by how busy it was on this hot summer’s day. It has a feel about it quite unlike the other side of the bay; all these different pockets, each with their own unique character, are part of Melbourne’s charisma.

Set on the Esplanade in a white Art Deco 1930s building, in what was originally the dressing pavilion of the Williamstown Baths, now sits its latest incarnation, a San Sebastian region style eatery. Beachside, a large deck, edged with a low wall of breeze blocks is a walk in, grab a table or stool affair, where drinks, snacks or larger plates are ordered from the outside bar. It’s a casual set up; big blue umbrellas, the staff in jeans and white shirts and serve yourself water and cutlery. At the weekend, weather permitting, live music or a DJ add to the vibrancy.

On the lower level, bench seats with bright cushions are only separated from the sand by a path. It is the perfect setting for a sunset cocktail on a warm summer evening, accompanied by a fish board of various preserved fish, charred octopus, pickled onions and cucumber, horseradish cream and chargrilled bread – good value for $22. As the sun goes down or on cooler days, a basket of blankets is available to throw around your shoulders to keep the chilly sea breezes at bay.

On our first visit, we booked a table in the dining room. With a contemporary colour palette of tan, white and varying shades of blue, light oak timber finishes and a concrete bar, the dining area has a welcoming, cool vibe. Competing with the beachgoers for a parking space was the only downside. Seated on a comfy, padded window banquette, we watched our designated driver doing laps finally joining us inside, hot and frustrated at his inability to locate a working parking meter.

The restaurant was buzzing but the acoustics were comfortable, muted by the blend of hard and soft flooring and furnishings. Thankfully, this isn’t one of those dining spaces where we needed to yell at each other to be heard, which was a good thing, given we had partied until late the night before. Keen to try a few of the cocktails, we accompanied a Burnt Orange Sunset Sour, Ginebra y Tonica and Strawberry Feels Forever mocktail with a bowl of recovery, crunchy fries – so good, we ordered a second round.

The menu inspired by the Basque country in Northern Spain is designed to share; our preferred style of dining. One, of the several staff who served us throughout lunch recommended the number of dishes to comfortably feed our group from the pinxtos – bite sized snacks, small and large plates and sides. We ordered a few less than suggested, given our fries intake. Making menu choices allowing for the dietary requirements of the pregnant one with us, we started with a leek croquette each, with the accompanying leek ash aioli served on the side, coal roasted mushrooms, all charged individually, and charred zucchini. The mushrooms, thick slices with crumbs between the layers on a small skewer, were rich and tasty – we could have easily had two each – as were the deliciously gooey croquettes, though the ash aioli wasn’t a table fave. At $4 a pop, the nibbles hit $40 in a hurry.

The charred zucchini didn’t arrive until the larger plates were served; a small hiccup, but as we’d had the starter fries, it didn’t matter to us. For the larger ‘mains’ from the charcoal grill, we shared the free range smoked chicken with a tasty a la grecque dressing and the market fish of the day; perfectly cooked whole flounder topped with anchovy and butter beans, and sides of blistered tomatoes mixed with a creamy goats curd, and a leaf salad. Both large plate serves were generous and plenty for the five of us. We needed the sides to balance the protein and I could have just happily eaten a bowl of the tomatoes on their own.

After our late night, we were ready for an afternoon snooze on the couch so skipped dessert and coffee. The food combined with the cocktails, a couple of Cavalier pales, mocktail and a glass of Albarino came to just over the mid $200 mark, pretty reasonable shared between 5.

(Unfortunately, the parking ticket added another $80!)

Sebastian Beach Grill and Bar is at 26 Esplanade, Williamstown

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