This Collingwood yakitori bar takes the Japanese bar snack concept to new heights
You’ll feel a strong sense of déjà vu if you dined here when it was mod-Middle-Eastern eatery Gigibaba. The deep, narrow bunker with its dominant island bar and droopy canopy of crisscrossed bulbs on cords has barely changed. The plaid-clad diners filling it look like they haven’t moved. Only now, instead of pomegranate Margaritas and baba ghanoush, they’re clasping Sapporo beers and prawn crackers holding a rich cargo of prawns and seaweed mayo.
Northern Light is a collaboration between venue manager Glen Bagnara and chef Adam Liston of Fitzroy’s mod-Brit champion the Commoner. It sounds Nordic, but it’s almost everything but – a Japanese-ish, kind-of-Chinese and sometimes European beast where sesame-meets-bresaola-meets-Old Dirty Bastard tracks.
Sit at the bar if you can. Half the fun of dining here comes from Bagnara bossing you into bone-dry glasses of Picpoul de Pinet from the Rhône or whatever else has him in a fevered fizz that day. Which is plenty. Rampant enthusiasm abounds at Northern Light, and it isn’t often misplaced.
Liston’s Japanese play on a Thai son-in-law egg is a cracker – a lacy-shelled, poached-then-flash-fried protein bomb, rolled in caramel umamified with miso and served with a potent punch of raw onion that’s been neutered by sweet vinegar. It’s the powers of salt, sugar, squish and crunch combined.
Or then there’s a juicy, fragrant half-quail, marinated in a chilli-sesame-seaweed togarashi spice mix, poached in master stock and finished in the fryer so you can chomp its tiny wings. It's a shame Liston slathers it with the fiery red-pepper funk of Jung Korean hot sauce – the kind they use for cheap buckets of fried bird at Gami Chicken.
There are a few times, actually, when we wish he’d put the handbrake on just one ingredient sooner. An otherwise excellent union of soft tongues of wagyu bresaola, splintery potato nest and a just-warm egg yolk is pushed over the rich-and-salty edge by a shaggy topcoat of parmesan.
But then it’s only worth noting because when Liston does hold back, his dishes are so good. Take the slender smoky fillet of eel with sweet-saline bursts of salted grapes and a fishy dusting of finely shaved mojama (salt-preserved tuna, FYI). It’s like campfire smoke and rain in your mouth and a perfect picture of restraint.
They’re taking risks here and we like that. And for the occasional tuna tartare that’s a bit gung-ho on soy, there’s the measured excellence of near-savoury vanilla ice cream under a jagged-edged teepee of rich, dark chocolate biscuits.
We were gunning for something booze-savvy and non-burger related to fill Smith Street's cutest bar. Wish granted.