Where: Bar Liberty, 234 Johnston Street Fitzroy
What: Bougie dining which doesn’t bankrupt you (too much)
Who: Beer Jenga Master and Skin Contact White Drinker
Bloat score: 4 – If I were lying prostrate on my tummy, it would have looked as though I was levitating
Visiting wine bars is my new favourite thing (I know – I’m severely behind the times) because regardless of which wine you choose, you’re winning and the food is equivalent to fine dining without the hefty price tag.
That was my recent experience at Little Andorra, and it was replicated at Bar Liberty, albeit with slightly upped stakes. Unlike Little Andorra which is conducive for walk-ins, you’re encouraged to make a booking at Bar Liberty, and what is better, they don’t have a phone number so the booking process is entirely online. I can’t think of many things I dislike more than having a phone conversation so this suited me perfectly.
Bar Liberty doesn’t take itself too seriously, judging by the word ‘liberty’ spray painted over the old signage, or maybe this is a sign that it takes itself too seriously – it’s hard to distinguish the difference in Melbourne.
What it definitely does take seriously is its drinks list, though not in a way that alienates people who choose their wine solely on account of how funny the label is (i.e. me). The Jura wine section, that is wine from the tiny region in the east of France, is preceded by an image of the Jurassic Park cast while a separate section is dedicated to Gautam Rao, a regular diner at Bar Liberty with impeccable taste in wine. The wine sections are each demarcated in an accessible manner with handy explanations and historical snapshots of each type of wine, as are the cocktails, beer, ciders and spirits.
Dining with Skin Contact White Drinker was especially illuminating as she divulged that she only enjoys white wine where a lot of skin is left on the grape (!!). This is a snapshot of the conversation that took place between herself and Beer Jenga Master as I committed this newfound knowledge to memory:
BJM: Isn’t wine where the skin is left on the grape rose?
SCWD: Rose is made from a little contact with red grape skins, but orange wine is the one I like – it’s made from white grapes with limited skin contact.
An old-fashioned world globe was wheeled over to us as soon as we’d taken our seats and unearthed to reveal three alcoholic beverages for us to choose from (on top of the numerous options on the menu) – two wines and a cider.
We went for a bottle of Flo’s Fizz from the South Australian label Little Things, which was one of the wines in the world globe. It was a Sauvignon Blanc ‘pet nat’, with an organic and natural fermentation that made it part-sparkling wine. It was a perfect choice for the sweltering day and it tasted like a cross between sparkling and cider to me, while the others noted that it had an interesting saltiness to it.
As with the menus of all the best places, Bar Liberty’s one is designed for sharing. It’s an eclectic one that pays homage to the cuisines of Italy, China, Japan and Spain. I was blessed to be dining with the two most open-minded diners, and so we chose two snacks, one medium dish, one large dish, and one vegetable dish.
Beer Jenga Master had dined at Bar Liberty before and highly recommended the ‘Mussel Dip on Potato Crisp with Lovage’, which was $4 a pop. Some surreptitious under-the-table googling undetected by my well-coiffed friends revealed that lovage is ‘an erect, perennial plant’ which bears close resemblance to the celery and parsley families, in case you were wondering.
The potato crisp was a salt and vinegar one, which was the perfect complement to the rich and velvety mussel mousse, pickled red onion and green powder that I’m guessing was the lovage. My first mouthful was a well-proportioned combination of salt, vinegar and mussel mousse but my second mouthful tasted of just mussel mousse, which was also fine with me. This was probably one of the most inventive dishes of the night and I greatly enjoyed it, though as Skin Contact White Drinker noted, it was over too soon.
We also ordered a plate of cured meats, which was perfectly pleasant but a far cry from the mountain of jamon I ingested while recently in Spain (refer here and here for a few glistening shots of jamon if you so please).
The medium dish that we ordered – the bucatini alla cacio e pepe – was perhaps the highlight of the night. When I cook pasta at home, I stick to gluten-free varieties and am typically restricted to either penne or spaghetti, though the selection has expanded in recent times. What is definitely not on shelves is gluten-free bucatini. Bucatini is thick spaghetti with a hole running through the centre, which is heavenly when blanketed with an emulsified sauce of butter, black pepper and pecorino. This dish was simply sublime – hearty without being heavy and indulgent without being cloyingly cheesy and greasy. The Roman native dish cacio e pepe is apparently a trendy food of the moment, so get in there before it’s not anymore.
Our waiter had smartly advised us that our vegetable side dish would go beautifully with the cacio e pepe so we had that alongside. A whole head of broccoli grilled to a crisp brown sat on top of deep fried crunchy grains of buckwheat that had been strewn across a rich sauce of ‘nduja, a chilli-infused spreadable salami from Calabria. The combination worked, and it was the perfect counterpoint to the creaminess of the cacio e pepe.
Our last dish of the night, steamed pipis in an XO sauce concoction with savoury doughnuts (or you char kway to Malaysians and Singaporeans who are used to dunking it into the traditional herbal soup dish of bak kut teh) was a light and umami dish to round up the night. The deep fried savoury doughnuts were perfect for dunking into the soy and XO sauce broth, and Beer Jenga Master and I took to spooning mouthfuls of the broth directly into our mouths after we’d finished all the pipis.
While we were initially contemplated ordering another dish – namely the Sebago potatoes with tamari mayo and nori – we decided against it, but only after our voice of reason, Beer Jenga Master, declared that she was too full to eat anymore. I was too, in hindsight, and especially after the four-bloat aftermath of having eaten everything I shouldn’t have kicked in.
Bar Liberty is a lovely little space with a rear courtyard and an upstairs area, although we remained confined to the little area up the front. Small flourishes like brass peacock clothes hangers for diners who sit on bar stools and the sabre used to slice the top off sparkling bottles are noteworthy, while the waitstaff are perfectly accommodating and friendly, which is always a surprise in a place as nice as Bar Liberty.
Bar Liberty has a rapidly changing menu, which seems to be the norm for wine bars, so do visit soon if you want to try mussel dip atop a potato crisp and the best cacio e pepe I’ve had in Melbourne. I don’t say this often, but it was definitely worth the bloat.
Bar Liberty is open from 5pm to 11pm Monday to Thursday, from 5pm to 12am Friday to Saturday and from 12pm to 12pm on Sunday.