Must is a wine bar and small plates restaurant that has tucked itself into the two-storey heritage space on William Street, where the Mexican restaurant Azteca used to be.
I smelled the cleverly named Must from down the street (making must – juice, that is – is step one in wine-making). The kitchen was roasting corn and the campfire whiffs drifted out the front door, drawing us in and safe from a sudden downpour. We had parked just up the street – close to the crowded patio of The Grand Pizzeria (reviewed in this space two weeks ago) where throngs of al fresco diners were jostling for dry ground, shielding their pizza pies under bright red umbrellas.
No throngs here. We were Must’s only clients. We climbed the stairs, past the Enomatic, and were directed to a cafÃ© table that overlooks William Street and the Market Square. It suited us very well, and we ordered our first taste of wine from a manageable list of reds, whites and bubbles, available in various size pours, by fun flights, and from the wine preservation system that handles the more distinctive bottles.
The eating part got off to a strong start, and after the first few bites of the first small plates, we looked out the open window and wondered why more of the soggy tourists below weren’t joining us.
That evening, just about everything worked. And so I returned, brimming with good feeling, just needing to taste a few more things. “You’ll love it here,” I promised my date.
But she didn’t. I didn’t. Seconds after the first few bites of the first small plates, acute disappointment set in. Nothing worked that evening. The service was dismal and the food was a round of misses.
A third visit, I went looking for some Jekyll and found more Hyde.
But I’ll say this. The space has wonderful bones and great potential (though right now it’s too dark, the wood of pub tables and chairs a bit oppressive). The wine list is of manageable length and seems very well put together, offering interesting choices at most price points. And the range of snacks would not be sniffed at in Barcelona – Mediterranean offerings like figs with Serrano ham and chevre, marinated olives and caper berries, grilled chorizo with white beans, and a frittata-like dish of egg, potato, onion and ham.
Though what impressed us most that first night was more Caribbean than Spanish. Ordered for the smoked corn we’d been salivating over, the house jerk chicken was so moist and flavourful we wondered if the bird had been brined before roasting, and the dry rub had just the right degree of pique. The smoked corn salsa was divine. We also scored with the dumplings, smoked mushrooms wrapped in sheets of al dente pasta in a rich and creamy wine sauce – and with the grilled calamari served with a delicious green curry dip.
But at my next visit that same dish of dumplings was a disaster. The pasta was undercooked, the mushrooms dull, the sauce floury and lacking the polish of the first visit. The shrimp were similarly ho-hum, the corn chutney tasting only of lime, and more of tin can than the smokey pleasure of before. Grilled chorizo sausages were dry, their white bean “cassoulet” under-seasoned and underwhelming. There was far too much soy-lacquering on the tuna sashimi and the “Must egg” was a failure – a poached egg mounted on a pile of over-fried, stale-tasting wedge potatoes, their edges burnt, with leather dry Serrano ham served on the side.
A main dish of beef was flaccid and juiceless, the outside grill-marked but not crusted, the fingerling potatoes mealy, and the pinot reduction found napping the vegetables, not the meat. Duck confit was so salty we returned it, and were surprised it made its way back to us via the bill.
Taken all together, Must is a puzzler. For one brief shining moment it was my new It restaurant, a real summer find. But like much of this summer, it proved unpredictable; Must is not necessarily a must.