Honestly, it’s not that far. Many people make the trek from Sydney to the South Coast on the regular. And so should you. Wollongong has undergone a huge cultural transformation over the past five years and its culinary world is more than keeping up. We run through the openings that prove it’s a rising hospitality talent.
Beast and Bread
“A sandwich shop of sorts” is how owners Dave and Nick Ryan describe their laneway eatery in Wollongong. “It’s not quite a sandwich shop, cafe or restaurant, but it melds all of these elements together to create something entirely different,” says Ryan. It adopts several personas throughout the day, from a cafe in the morning to a bar at night. The first thing you’ll notice is the huge pile of salty crackling sitting behind the counter. It towers above the 16-hour slow-roasted pork-shoulder sandwich and is unlike anything you’ll find back in Sydney. The menu keeps things fresh with seasonal salads and rotating meats. This week’s selection includes a green bean and broccolini salad with pumpkin hummus and crispy shallots; a roasted beetroot, pear and pickled fennel salad with toasted pepitas; and a Vietnamese vermicelli “slaw” with roasted peanuts.
Located in an unassuming building down a laneway, Kneading Ruby has brought the industrial warehouse vibe to the Gong. It’s a sophisticated, modern Italian bar, with a hint of authentic Italian warmth thrown in. The colossal pizza oven churns out Neapolitan-style pizzas all night. Hiding out the back is a team of talented chefs producing simple, modern Italian that stays true to its roots. Offerings include polenta chips with mushroom and gorgonzola; crispy zucchini flowers dusted in pecorino and lime; and the house specialty, seared gnocchi with pancetta and peas. It successfully fills the void left by ageing Italian eateries, giving the people of Wollongong one more reason to stick around on a Saturday night.
Five Barrel Brewing
This is not your typical craft brewery. And the owner, Phil O’Shea, is not your typical brewer. “I’d been home-brewing for two years in the lead-up to opening the brewery. I treated it like a job and brewed religiously,” says O’Shea. His manual system is essentially a scaled-up version of the one he used at home. It’s small, producing only 1200 litres weekly, which, says O’Shea, “means I keep the beer nice and fresh and gives me the freedom to do smaller experimental beers without too much fear that I can’t sell them”.
While you’ll find Five Barrel beers on rotation at Sydney pubs, O’Shea is passionate about keeping his brand local. Malt is sourced nearby where possible and his goal is to solely distribute within the Illawarra. The core range was designed to appeal to a wider audience, not just beer aficionados. The ESB (extra special bitter) gives off orange and spice aromas, with hints of toffee and marmalade. Get to the tasting room on a Friday night where specialty brews such as milk stout and American IPA will be flowing until the kegs run dry.
The Burns family live and breathe hospitality. The team is made up of Andy, Gen, Shelly and Gav, who all have a passion not only for food, but also for showcasing local produce. It’s been a year since they brought American barbecue to the Illawarra via 2 Smoking Barrels. For their second instalment, they’ve looked to the East for inspiration. Babyface Kitchen is a modern Japanese restaurant where Australian produce is the hero. It’s refined dining with exceptional quality and professional service but without the white tablecloths.
Head chef Andy Burns developed a passion for Japanese food purely through eating it. “I love the balance of flavours, the freshness and the use of citrus,” he says. “It’s a great cuisine that allows the produce to shine.” The highlight is the raw section of the menu, which changes depending on what’s fresh. “It’s not uncommon to be eating sashimi that’s been out of the water for less than 24 hours” says Andy. David Blackmore’s prized Wagyu often makes the specials and produce from Vic’s Meat Market also features.
Dinner at Sandygoodwich
Talented duo Yon Miller and Emma Huber are spreading their wings by introducing a dinner service. On Thursday and Friday nights, the now-licensed space throws the standard cafe menu out the window in favour of more experimental fare. The food is not limited to a particular cuisine. “Between us, our grandparents cover eight different nationalities, from Palestine to Poland. We draw influence from all of them,” says Huber. A distinct Asian undertone carries throughout, from the red braised pork ribs with house sweet chilli and Sichuan salt crackling to the pumpkin gnudi with pickled watermelon rind, almond, thyme and parmesan.
A seven-course communal dinner is held on the last Wednesday of every month. It’s a chance for the team to experiment and test out their ideas, techniques and flavours. Miller is always on the lookout for locally and responsibly sourced sustainable goods. He also aims to use the whole animal. It’s not uncommon to have an octopus or skate land on the doorstep from a local fisherman.
There’s also a Chef Studio event, which sees Miller and three other chefs from the Illawarra cook a four-course menu around a common theme. Past studios have seen themes of fire, fermentation and alcohol, while the next event will highlight flour. “It’s a chance for chefs to shine and finally use the techniques they’ve experimented with, as well as a way for us to work and learn from each other,” he says.
The next Chef Studio will be held on June 7. Call (02) 42444690 to book, and book early to avoid missing out.