234 Johnston St Fitzroy, VIC 3065
|Opening hours||Wed-Sat 5pm-midnight; Sun noon-10pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Events, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
Welcome to the dining frontier, where the wines are salty, the bacon is chicken skin and the pitch is a free-form: "Stuff we like."
Here on Johnston Street, in an ex-taqueria girt by graffiti, sommelier Banjo Harris Plane and Michael Bascetta (both ex-Attica) have joined forces with Manu Potoi and chef Casey Wall of Rockwell and Sons to create a sort-of clubhouse for drink enthusiasts.
Broadly it's a wine bar with all the minimal-intervention and rogue varietal leanings you've come to expect of Harris Plane. But they prefer "alcohol bar", given the equal focus on craft spirits and beers – there's a blanket ban on flavourless tinnies here.
And, unlike fellow newcomers Embla and Marion, where off-piste wine lists are grounded with familiar Euro-centric food (innovative as the cooking may be), Bar Liberty has a slightly more radical spirit befitting the name.
There's no slouching into soft banquettes over a plate of roast chicken here. You might call the look Scando with a Socialist Alternative edge. It's a woody and chalky space with painted plywood banquettes lined with closely set two-tops. The Smiths and Kaiser Chiefs are in the alt pop-rock mix and "Liberty" has been roughly tagged over the old La Condesa sign.
The menu is technique-heavy and knows no geographical bounds, juxtaposing pippies in XO sauce with fermented corn "risotto" and a BLT made with chicken-skin crackling. It's a little Chinese and sometimes Nordic, and as highbrow in parts as it is nostalgically trashy in others.
A drink-heavy agenda is set from the get-go. Harris Plane and Bascetta glide in with an antique globe concealing kickstarters: maybe the vibrant Canberra Sassafras sparkling, a salty gose (the sports drink of beers, with added salt) or their own dry, nutty sherry made in collaboration with Pennyweight. It's silky service, and a slippery slope.
On that: a lot of pours sit at the $13-$22 mark and it bears remembering, since price isn't always mentioned when suggestions are made – something they should work on.
But cue a round of GLTs, the unstoppable signature straight out of the gate, for its union of fluffy white bread, tomatoes and lettuce joined by gribenes (chicken-skin crackling). It's richer, saltier and crunchier than the bacon it's subbing. Win-win.
Wall is pulling no punches here and the pay-offs can be great. See the salt and pepper vegetables – tart green tomatoes, young corn and eggplant fried in potato starch for a shattery tempura shell that's pungent with white pepper (in a way you'll love or hate), or a super tender octopus tentacle confited in chicken-skin dripping and served with a vinegar-sharpened, yeasty and anchovy-spiked sourdough bread sauce that's got a bit of a gentleman's relish edge. Brilliant stuff.
Sometimes, less might be enough. For me, the multi-layered party of corn (risi pasta and charred kernels making a sort-of risotto with a sweet puree base and fermented corn juice kicker) loses its balance to a pungent bay oil.
Chocolate mint adds an odd Listerine quality to a heirloom tomato salad and the burrata with black garlic oil and salted cucumber begs for some acid to pull out the sweetness of the fresh cheese.
But it's not all revolutionary envelope-pushing. Sunday afternoons, sun streaming through the huge windows, are as lively as they are long and easy, with a solid hospitality contingent working through bottles of Arbois chardonnay from the Jura, extra briny martinis and plates of the more familiar wine food – a bright and clean steak tartare that's a jumble of just seasoned beef with cherries and a thatch of matchstick fries; plates of umamiful gabagool – capocollo – from Borgo Salumi in Queensland and wedges of comte with a 50-millilitre serve of vin jaune. The 50/50 club is one of the greatest terroir matches on Earth and keenly priced at $30.
Bar Liberty offers a challenge, but these are hospitality professionals whose knowledge is bested only by their affable personalities. Did we mention you can drink Jim Beam aged in a model Corvette? Take the ride.
Pro tip On the last Wednesday of the month, Banjo does wine dinners with hella expensive gear.
Go-to dish The GLT, a chicken-skin crackling BLT that puts bacon to shame ($12).
Like this? Fitzroy gets even more wine bar action next month: Harry and Frankie take over the Rose Hotel (406 Napier Street, Fitzroy).