Humbug review Newcastle Review 2022 | Good Food

2022-08-08 07:42:08 By : Ms. Wang Kiki

87-89 Hunter St Newcastle , NSW 2300

Disclaimer: I was born in Newcastle and I love the city like Novocastrians love rugby league and complaining about the light rail. Any time smart young operators open a new restaurant in my home town, I'm prone to wild claims that Newcastle is a food-lover's paradise and Sydneysiders should put down their macchiatos and whip up the highway immediately.

But I have been burnt: an inspired restaurant turns heads in the coal town every few years, but it rarely kick-starts a larger trend of new venues going beyond tandoori chicken on pizza. And while several excellent bars have launched in Newcastle over the past decade, two hours is a long drive for a negroni. 

So it's with some trepidation that I say that the former steel-shipping capital is finally – maybe, perhaps, just quietly – on its way to becoming the great dining hub it should always have been.

Several new joints worth your lunch money have sprung up in the past 12 months as more restaurateurs become priced out of Sydney.

Meanwhile, more chefs are discovering that produce from Newcastle and its nearby regions is the kind of stuff the French get hot and sweaty thinking about: sharp oysters, impeccable fish (try the bonito), buttery grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chooks and heirloom vegetables.

You can pretty much get all this at Humbug, a restaurant opened by young couple Mike Portley and Stephanie Wells in January and responsible for reviving a part of Hunter Street Mall that was previously a tumbleweed wasteland. 

It's a breezy, bright space splashed with artworks that could be Gorman dress prints. Long tables and banquettes are engineered for opening a second bottle and, on the Saturday night I visit, a few groups of 30-somethings seem to be on to their third.

Portley leads the kitchen while Wells runs the floor, making sure glasses are never empty and suggesting wines from a list that leans towards organic and natural. It's a fun line-up of booze, but it would be nice to see a few more old-school Hunter Valley heroes, such as Tyrrell's – especially for locals who'd rather drink the juice of a freshly squeezed footy sock than anything described as "minimal intervention" (hi, Dad!).

We home in on a wild and savoury Brian Oregon Gris 2019 ($98) that works terrifically with slip-off-the-bone pork ribs ($20) covered in a culture clash of Thai basil, oyster sauce and a Calabrian chilli paste of creeping heat. 

Other dishes are equally bold-flavoured and borderless, such as Spanish anchovies draped over Danish pastries filled with parmesan custard ($7 each); three bites of cream, crunch and punch.

Diced raw beef is enhanced with porcini cream and spooned across four deep-fried pucks of sushi rice disguised as hash browns ($24). It's far from graceful plating, but substance beats style. 

Likewise, silver trevally tataki ($26) is covered in so much yuzu mayonnaise it looks as though it needs treating with a burn dressing. However, pickled celery brings everything together to create something soothing and delicious, halfway between ceviche and coleslaw.

For reasons unknown, our Manning Valley-sourced scotch fillet ($55) shows up 10 minutes before the pasta, but at least it's a mighty good steak, with especially rich marbling for a grass-fed cow. Bonus points for the accompanying bearnaise, made with egg yolks marinated in soy and sake for heft and depth.

Maybe the mafaldine ($33) arrives last because the springy pasta is the best thing on the menu. Beef cheek and brisket are braised overnight in chicken stock and Pedro Ximenez sherry to create a ragu of lip-sticking gravity. A liberal grating of manchego cuts through the heaviness while a big, earthy shiraz is required drinking.

And if you want to make a weekend of it? A new QT hotel is close by for accommodation and exceptional cocktails after dinner. Fish-and-chip institution Scotties recently revamped its menu for next-day bouillabaisse. Newcastle's first yakitori bar (Âpé) opened two weeks ago and I'm champing at the bit to check it out. Meanwhile, hatted Flotilla is always a treat, eight-month-old Harrison's Food and Wine offers a value $75 set menu and The Ship Inn is a must for cracking cottage pie.

Still, Humbug represents the best of Newcastle dining right now. Engaged service and flavour-first cooking that treats produce with respect? Now that is worth driving two hours for. 

Vibe: Come-as-you-are dinner party at a friend's house

Go-to dish: Mafaldine with brisket and beef cheek braised in Pedro Ximenez

Drinks: Fun list of international and Australian natural wines and pre-batched cocktails

Cost: About $130 for two, excluding drinks

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine