Restaurant Reviews

Northern Light, Melbourne restaurant review

East meets West meets East in the inner north at Northern Light. But, writes Michael Harden, there’s more fun to be had in the simple pleasure of eating the dishes than decoding their origins.
Alicia Taylor

For anybody who remembers Melbourne’s Smith Street as a ragbag shopping strip known for its seconds clothing warehouses and highly visible heroin trade, its reinvention as one of the country’s most credible eating destinations has been so dramatic it seems almost absurd.

Saint Crispin, Gorski and Jones, Huxtable, Huxtaburger, Easy Tiger, Lee Ho Fook, Rockwell and Sons, and Gelato Messina all have current Smith Street addresses and are ably abetted by an impressive array of food stores, cafés, bars and pubs. With Northern Light now occupying the shopfront that once housed Gigibaba, the street has yet another string to its bow.

It’s fitting that Northern Light has taken on the space of Ish Tosun’s late, lamented modern Turkish diner. Like Gigibaba, it adds something original and exciting to the strip’s mix – something that didn’t actually register as a gap until it had set up shop.

The missing element? Chef and co-owner Adam Liston is using his first completely autonomous kitchen to play with the kind of Asian-Western fusion cooking made famous by the likes of Tetsuya Wakuda and Cheong Liew late last century. But he’s filtering this through the current obsession with restaurant-like food being served in bar-like settings, keeping his range of small dishes casual but precise, embracing big flavours, but keeping them clean and sharp.

Take his prawn cracker entrée. The standard-size, standard-colour cracker is made in-house and topped with a mix of chopped prawns that have been pickled in yuzu before being mixed in an aïoli and chilli sauce. There are chives and tarragon chopped over the top and a mayo flavoured with dehydrated nori.

It works, the citrus tang of the yuzu cutting through the creaminess of the sauce, the cracker adding obvious and welcome crunch and the seaweed mayo adding a subtle oceanic hint.

It would be hard to deny that a mix like this falls under any heading other than fusion, not just in terms of the East-West nori and mayo combination, but also the East-East Chinese-meets-Japanese flavour of the yuzu and prawn cracker pairing.

There’s more of it elsewhere. An eel dish, perhaps the fanciest and most restauranty on the ever-changing menu, teams Skipton eel that’s been brushed with a traditional unagi sauce and served on another sauce, an almost black number made from squid stock and mayo. Salted and fresh grapes are also in the mix, which is then finished with shavings of dried tuna belly. It’s the kind of combination that makes your head hurt a little just thinking about all the border crossings but Liston manages to get the balance right, even if, looks-wise, the dish seems like an escapee from a more formal restaurant elsewhere in the city.

So there’s the ghost of fusion past hanging over the menu. But in this setting and, perhaps, after being so completely out of fashion for nearly two decades, the term doesn’t appear to carry the same toxic sting it once did. If you come to think about it, there’s something a bit food-geek retro about fusion cooking that actually makes it an ideal fit for somewhere as self-consciously hip as Smith Street.

Certainly Liston and business partner Glen Bagnara have sought to fit in design-wise with Smith Street’s less-is-more script, keeping most of the décor they inherited. Gigibaba was one of the latter-day Melbourne pioneers of the pared-back, quasi-industrial look that has spread like a virus across the city and the massed bare bulbs on tangled cords, exposed brick walls hung with spare chairs and marble-topped bar have all been retained at Northern Light. The main difference the new guys have made to the room is the blackboard scrawled with wine specials on the back wall that replaces a large Turkish carpet.

No surprise, then, that it’s still a good, familiar space to spend some time, particularly up at the bar and particularly now with Glen Bagnara and manager Emily Pullen working the front of house, making sure that food, wine, water and banter all arrive at just the right intervals.

At a short, sharp, single page, the Northern Light wine list sticks mainly in Australia (Yarra Valley sparkling Hunter Valley verdelho, Claire Valley cab sav) with a couple of offerings from the northern hemisphere, perhaps a pinot noir from the US or a pinot grigio from Italy, that are all remarkably well-priced and suited to Liston’s big and bouncy flavours. It’s one of those small, precision-curated lists where you feel you could just close your eyes and point and still end up with something simpático with what you’re eating.

There’s a decent beer list, too – the food is definitely brew-friendly – that includes a section devoted to 500ml-plus bottles (including longnecks or tallies) but, surprisingly for a place with such a candid relationship with Japanese flavours, no sake list.

The sake is most conspicuously with dishes such as the sashimi of the day (which, due to popular demand, the season and a good supplier, mostly means tuna). Liston doesn’t stick to a trad sashimi template with his fish, cutting it larger, squarer and a little flatter than the classic, almost like a tile, which is quite an effective look on the plate, even if it’s a little trickier to tackle with chopsticks. The tuna is dressed lightly with katsuo soy, a hearty Korean soy sauce infused with bonito and shiitake, and is topped with pickled ginger and radishes that are made in-house.

More Japanese moments come with the range of skewers – wagyu, shiitake and chicken varieties – that are done over binchotan (Japan’s slow-burning, low-smoke oak charcoal), which means the skewers are about the flavour of the (quality) ingredients rather than relying on smoke to do all the heavy lifting.

Then there are the royal noodles, which take a small step back into fusion territory. The noodles are so named because they were once made exclusively for the royal families in Japan and Korea and are made from high-quality flour and mountain spring water.

They have an impressive slippery texture, are a little firm and lovely to eat. Liston serves them cold, tossed with crisp fried garlic, spring onions, fresh lime juice, a splash of both light and dark sesame oil and then finishes the dish with a dash of a brilliantly flavoured 30-year-old Korean fish sauce. Cool and refreshing, it works well as a follow-on from some of the heftier meat dishes.

The menu has other interestingly textured, influence-hopping moments like this. Edamame and bean curd, marinated in chilli, white soy and togarashi, are tossed with chilli and fried shallots and finished with smoked soy and sesame oil. Eggs, poached then deep-fried to order, team up with soy sauce-seasoned caramel, chilli and furikake (mostly dried seaweed and toasted sesame).

A beautifully textured and flavoured spiced eggplant congee seasoned with soy and sesame oil is teamed with shallots and garlic aïoli and is a dish that should have all right-minded vegetarians flocking.

It’s pretty obvious that Liston doesn’t muck around with flavours. He likes ’em big but he also has them under control so they rarely break the leash and become noisy and overwhelming (though a chilli crab dish with XO onions might be the one that got away). The noises he’s making are all there for a reason.

A dish of calamari and apple, both cut into similarly sized small dice and then mixed with a creamy yuzu- flavoured mayo and chives, is a surprising mix of sweet and fishy flavours and crunchy, chewy textures that arrives under a sculptural covering of toasted nori sheets. There’s certainly plenty going on but the dish is a lot of well-balanced fun to eat, particularly in the way the small white cubes of apple and squid trick the eye with their similarity but surprise the palate with their difference.

Then there’s the Dorper lamb ribs, from NSW small producer Plains Paddock, that are braised in a master stock, rendered over charcoal and tossed with a sauce that includes roasted capsicum, kimchi, lime juice, coriander and fish sauce. Subtle, they ain’t. Fatty, delicious, tender and full of great vibrant flavour, they most certainly are.

Liston also does some good sweet stuff, sticking to his big-flavour guns and trying to keep to the brief set by the rest of the menu. His broken ice-cream sandwich with vanilla parfait, mousse and salted caramel lurking sweetly beneath a structure of broken chocolate biscuits ticks many dessert boxes without setting the pulse racing, while the yuzu curd with white chocolate and sablé biscuits that includes fresh and frozen apples, gingerbread crumbs and mint oil hoists the fusion flag again with some success.

Northern Light fits neatly into the Smith Street food milieu, which is no easy task, given the quality and originality of many of the businesses jostling for space on the strip. But while it slots easily into that particular genre, it also brings influences from elsewhere, too – from the fusion and modern Australian traditions of the 1980s and ’90s to the bar-as-restaurant movement from more recent times – that make it feel original, familiar and fun all at the same time. And that combination could be the best kind of fusion there is.

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