Like the sizeable list of pet nats that takes pride of place at the front of its wine list, Bar Liberty is bringing a little natural sparkle to the age-old tradition of the wine bar. Seated in the snug room you may be surrounded by the time-worn wine bar decorations of “dead marines” turned into candlesticks and chalkboard recommendations, but you are also bathed in the lurid red neon from outside and overlooked by the prominent word LIBERTY, scrawled hastily over the sign from the previous restaurant occupant.
Despite the anarchic-looking exterior, this is less of a revolution and more a cheeky nod to modernising the European wine bar, a concept that is much loved around the world but also gathering a bit of dust, like an unpopular drop at the back of a bar. Bar Liberty’s wine list is a very modern journey through the world’s best wines; it’s vibrant and fun with “fresh and energising” whites and “lighter bright” reds sitting beside traditional Champagnes and some seriously hefty reds from all around the Continent. Under bar manager Josh Begbie even the classic cocktails get a makeover, with the Black Manhattan adding Cherry Romano and Marionette Nocino (walnut liqueur) to make a dusky, nutty new twist, and the oft-derided Japanese Slipper getting overhauled with yuzu liqueur. There is a strong emphasis on local craft spirits and the beer list has pleasant surprises like Sailors Grave Law of the Tongue oyster stout.
Head chef Zackary Leon Furst and executive chef Casey Wall make sure that the small plates pack some big flavours. King prawns come swimming in a miso sauce while sweet slices of snapper fillet are served on a bed of tart kefir cultured cream and thin slices of Jerusalem artichoke, with an aniseed kick from fennel seeds. The shiitake mushrooms from the Otways served with smoked cashew and confit fennel and parsley is a stand-out dish and enough to convert anyone to vegetarianism. That said, a larger plate of lamb backstrap served perfectly pink with kohlrabi, saltbush and dill makes a very impressive counterargument. The only downside is that once you make it to the bigger plates you are definitely paying restaurant prices rather than wine bar prices.
The crowd is a mix of locals popping in for a short stay at one of the four coveted bar stools and those who have come from further afield for a meal, but all are served with aplomb by staff who know where the line is between attentive and overattentive and skate along it effortlessly. The chalkboards spruik both local craft beers and uncool wine styles like Lambrusco. Bursting with new-world confidence and celebrating old-world traditions, Bar Liberty is the perfect blend of comfort and surprise.
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