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BENNIE'S BARS | Wollongong

Wollongong isn't generally hailed as a great food or wine destination, but some excellent drinking and dining establishments have opened in the New South Wales South Coast city in recent years, including Babyface Kitchen, which Mike Bennie rates very highly.

Babyface Kitchen

Shop 1, 179 Keira St, Wollongong, NSW

What a coup for Wollongong. A dream team breathes life into a city mostly overlooked for its food and wine offerings, indeed, setting the pace for bar and dining experiences anywhere in Australia.

This is one hell of a joint. It's fun, creative and diverse, with a kitchen that bristles with confidence, matched by a wine and drinks list that sets a blistering pace. It's a seriously potent combo.

The dynamic-duo running the show are chef-proprietor Andy Burns and the effervescent wine and drinks guy David Pearce, but it's the sum of its parts that wins over all comers to this fresh bar-cum-bistro.

The interiors are clean and bright, featuring white-washed walls, banks of tables and a lengthy, inviting bar. A breezy, coastal kind of vibe is readily apparent, yet the venue also shows minimalist design that wouldn't be unfamiliar to those who frequent the countries of Scandinavia.

While the floor is graced by amiable servers, the mess-hall style kitchen at rear hums with activity, producing clean, bright dishes that speak of Japanese cuisine, confidence in technique and yet a comfort in revering produce over chef-led complexity.

Burns' kitchen nous sees a slant on seasonal, local produce, while Pearce morphs a wine and drinks list around on-form drops from Australia's glitterati of avant-garde wine producers. Burns' deft touch with seafood is a particular focus, while Pearce seems to revel in the diversity of flavours and textures from things that have been fermented and distilled.

Pearce also clearly reflects his close relations with wine producers of a certain style with a smartly chosen list that rings loud with wines from Shobbrook, Lucy Margaux, Ochota Barrels, Patrick Sullivan, Gentle Folk and the like, though he's careful with cuvées and equally insightful with boutique wineries from a more classic background.

Junmai (natural rice) sake fleshes out the list, as do artisan spirits and a selection of interesting beers from emerging craft breweries. Monthly guest nights see a host of wine producers and importers barnstorming the venue, splashing kaleidoscopic drops from all corners of the globe.

Locals and trade turn up in droves to experience these one-off nights, and the events are increasingly shining a spotlight on the broader hospitality community of The 'Gong.

This is no fad, nor a carbon copy of bigger city venues, instead you will find a general joy for exploration, boundary pushing, warm hospitality and a vivaciousness that sees people jamming the venue, eager for the next adventure. It's the neighbourhood joint we'd all love to have a stroll away.

The Highlights

Top Drinks: 2018 Chikuma Nishiki Kizan Sanban (Miyami Nishiki) Pure rice sake with slippery, nutty rice flavours plus a lift of anise and apple. Outstanding with lighter, uncooked seafood dishes.
2017 Aaron Fenwick Chateau Comme Ci Comme Ca Semillon
Debut white wine from the co-founder of stellar Adelaide Hills diner The Summertown Aristologist. Lemony fresh, slightly saline, so refreshing.

Drink + Food Match: Simplicity at play, but kingfish with nashi pear, soy, lemon aspen and pickled turnip has the perfect delicacy and tang for the light, prettiness of Unkel Wines Life On Mars Vermentino.

Best Dish: Giant, ruddy Mooloolaba king prawns, with umami-rich shoyu koji and cultured butter sauce, come with slabs of sourdough. Hedonistic, and superb with the array of orange wines available.


122-124 Keira St, Wollongong.

Technically it's a French restaurant, but there's plenty of opportunity to settle in for a drinking experience with snacks. The heritage building, with its comfortable nooks and crannies, feels more French farmhouse than Wollongong.

Black Cockatoo

3/88 Kembla St, Wollongong 

Secreted behind a door inside Creamies Gelateria (next to The Throsby), this speakeasy-style bar is a riotous mix of fancy craft beers, upmarket cocktails, and yet holds a downtempo feel. This is brilliant fun.

Howlin' Wolf Bar

103/53-61 Crown St, Wollongong

While wine might not be the focus, the bar offers rootin' tootin' good times with whisky. Indeed, nearly 300 examples grace its list, and it's home to bartenders who really know their way around a cocktail.