George Livissianis can’t decide where to sit for dinner. Outside at Yoko Dining, or inside? You’d think he would know by now, seeing as he designed the place.
Restaurateur and chef Jonathan Barthelmess laughs when he tells this story about Livissianis, a lifelong friend who has been instrumental in the creation of his eateries. Usually where to eat at Howard Smith Wharves is an easy decision to make, Barthelmess says, gesturing towards the Brisbane River shining in the afternoon sun and the office blocks that tower in the distance.
But then Barthelmess and Livissianis are particularly proud of Yoko, a two-storey izakaya that opens today next door to Barthelmess’s enormously popular Greca restaurant. Yoko’s long line of riverside booths are offset by a beautiful bento-box-inspired fit-out inside. Crisp American ash plywood walls semi-conceal a sizeable kitchen and a bar area upstairs. Off to the side, a dispense bar sits backed by vintage-style fridges and a slushie machine, the venue’s heritage-listed warehouse frame peeking through with iron girders and oak beams.
It wasn’t always meant to be like this. Well, it was in the beginning before Barthelmess and Livissianis got carried away adding great swathes of retro-futurist yellow to the design. But, he says, your original ideas are often the best.
“We went a bit weird for a couple of weeks with the design,” he says. “Not that it was weird, but then we went back to the original idea. That happens with the design process. Almost all restaurants start with a sketch and an idea, and then you go full circle and end up back where you started … The first idea is your gut instinct and it’s usually the right one.”
The yellow now shows as a highlight – in the tiled dispense bar, a bit of veneer here and there, and the floor staff’s nifty shoelaces. Much of the venue’s colour instead comes through the clever lighting that glows red in the corners and shines bright from the hanging fluorescent bulbs above.
Yoko is perhaps Barthelmess’s purest expression yet of his love for Japan, where he has an instalment of his enormously popular Sydney restaurant, The Apollo. In particular, he’s looked to capture the atmosphere of Tokyo’s late-night vinyl bars.
“The amount of time I’ve spent in Japan and the experiences I’ve had there, it’s pretty personal getting to bring those back and mould them all into an experience for everyone else,” Barthelmess says. “Even just the places I hang out after dinner, listening to records and going and having a whisky. That’s what I like. Hopefully everyone else will like it as well.”
Yoko Dining has about 70 seats outside, 50 inside and capacity for another 50 in the upstairs bar that Barthelmess and award-winning barkeep Perryn Collier have populated with large collections of sake, Japanese whisky and vinyl records, along with various other knick-knacks. Taking pride of place is a pair of turntables, ready to spin tunes late into the night.
In the kitchen is Kitak Lee, a veteran of Cho Cho San (another celebrated Barthelmess venue), Kisumé and Momfuku, backed up by Greca and Yoko executive chef Ben Russell. Lee’s dishes include whole steamed reef fish, charcoal chicken with sansho pepper, and toasted rice served with spanner crab, edamame and tobiko. There’s also a raw section with beef tartare, scallops with silken tofu, and kingfish with sesame and kohlrabi. And there’s a noodle and dumpling menu with spicy rice noodles, an organic soba noodle salad and mushroom gyoza.
“Izakya runs through the menu, and izakaya, when you break it down, [means] a Japanese pub,” Barthelmess says. “We’re bistro-pub-style Japanese dining. It’s generous and leaning towards the acidic style of Japanese food, so ponzus and pickles rather than teriyaki and mayonnaises.”
For drinks, venue manager Nick Ingall has pulled together close to 150 wines with a bunch of drops available via Coravin. Upstairs, Collier has brought his intimidating skill to bear on a collection of cocktail jugs, mocktails and yuzu slushies.
Yoko is the last eatery to slot into the tightly packaged collection of Howard Smith Wharves restaurants closest to the city. Its opening has been markedly different to that of Greca, which was one of the first when it debuted in December last year.
“It’s been easier this time. Just having a team here and existing suppliers and relations, it’s just a completely different experience,” Barthelmess says. “It’s two weeks before the absolutely manic time … This does feel like the last bit of the first stage of Howard Smith Wharves, but it doesn’t feel like it’s going to stop. It feels like it’s going to get even more exciting.”
5 Boundary Street, Brisbane
(07) 3236 6582
Mon to Fri 12pm–late
Sat & Sun 11.30am–late