Basement lot 1, 209 Clarence Street Sydney, NSW 2000
|Opening hours||Mon-Thu, 4pm-midnight; Fri, 2pm-midnight; Sat, 5pm-midnight|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
Julio Lobo knew how to live the life, if his namesake bar is anything to go by.
The legendary Cuban sugar baron, who built casinos and filled swimming pools with perfume for Hollywood beauties while championing the rights of low-paid workers, would be right at home among the old-world glamour and ridiculous 1950s opulence of this Clarence Street hideout.
To say owners Eddie Levy and Michael Hwang - a property guru and a hospitality worker, respectively - have splashed out is putting it mildly.
But thank Lobo someone's done it, because the lines outside Baxter Inn (across the road) are, frankly, becoming a little tiring, and it's about time there was another option close by.
They've taken Baxter's whisky focus and raised it with an epic rum selection. Cocktails are elegant and serious with a Caribbean twist.
The signature Short and Stout (Zacapa 23, Campari, chocolate porter reduction, $17) was a fabulously bitter-sweet sipper that mellowed beautifully with ice.
My only gripe is it's impossible to read the menu in the bar's dim light. You would need a floodlight and magnifying glass to make out the tiny font,
There were dozens of Communist Sours (Havana Especial, Aperol, lemon, orgeat syrup, orange bitters, egg white, $17) leaving the bar but the Jamaican Julep (Appleton Estate V/X, lychee, black tea syrup, passionfruit, mint, ginger beer, $18) and Plan-Ting (Plantation OP rum, Jamaican Ting soft drink, lime, grapes, $17) had big flavours that wowed me more.
Wines aren't forgotten, with a dozen bottles covering some stunning drops to suit the opulent surrounds, such as a big Yves Cuilleron Roussanne from the Rhone Valley ($10 glass), or a beautiful grand ordinaire from cult Burgundy pinot noir producer Joseph Roty Bourgogne ($75 bottle). My only gripe is it's impossible to read the menu in the bar's dim light. You would need a floodlight and magnifying glass to make out the tiny font, so it's up to the bartenders to recommend something, and a fantastic job they do. They're hard at work crushing, igniting, shaking and flaring under the helm of former Ivy Pool Club whiz Jared Merlino.
With drinks at $17-$18 a pop, you would expect no less. And if you're perched at the bar, they'll also sneak you a few bowls of banana chips, which are disturbingly tasty.
On the food note, there are a dozen Central American dishes that are very good value and easy to share.
The dreaded beans-cheese-meat sludge that is all too common in the Caribbean is here, but so are some amazing dishes such as a shredded flank steak slow-braised in dark beer and brown sugar, with crispy chickpeas and cassava cream ($13), which I could eat over and over again.
Corn husks filled with polenta, smashed corn and pulled pork ($11), and baked eggplant with fresh salsa ($13) were in sludge territory, but they were delicious.
Judging by the quality of the food and drink and the spectacular decor, I predict it won't be long before a Baxter-esque queue stands at Lobo's door. On a Friday night, it's three-deep at the bar and impossible to get a table.
They've nailed that fine line between a classy bar and a place where you can get a bit loose with a group after work. ''Hopefully, we've uncovered the place where Julio Lobo enjoyed having his nightly drink,'' Levy says.
We'll happily join him every night of the week.
The Lobo Plantation
YOU'LL LOVE IT IF … you love Baxter Inn and rum cocktails.
YOU'LL HATE IT IF … you're not in the mood to brave a crowd.
GO FOR … Short and Stout, Jamaican Julep, shredded flank steak