Benchwarmer review

Assorted yakitori skewers at Benchwarmer.
Assorted yakitori skewers at Benchwarmer. Photo: Justin McManus

345 Victoria St West Melbourne, VIC 3003

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Features Licensed, Bar
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9329 5979

THEME: CHICKEN AND BEER

What is it about chicken and beer? Eating one and drinking the other is ridiculously satisfying. Jaunty lager is smashing with juicy thigh. Fried drumettes swoon for hoppy IPA. Golden wings are a superb foil for crisp ale.

Is it the play of savoury notes: salt on malt, hen versus hop? Maybe it's the slake of carbonation crashing into the slip of fat? It's a culinary conundrum that's always worth solving and Benchwarmer is a great place to tackle it.

Benchwarmer's fridges (and kegs) are loaded with craft beers.
Benchwarmer's fridges (and kegs) are loaded with craft beers. Photo: Justin McManus

This cheerful beer hall is in West Melbourne, the gossipy country town propped next to the city. Brew enthusiast Lachlan Jones had been hunting for a site for three years when he happened upon a shuttered shop, slipped a note under the door, and started knocking together a deal 30 minutes later.

Benchwarmer opened in February 2020 so has spent most of its brief life selling takeaway beer – there are 150 indie options in the fridges. Now that drinking-in is possible again, the bar has hit its straps, running nine tap beers and changing the offering every time a keg is drained.

About that chicken. Benchwarmer's menu has two strands: izakaya (casual Japanese dishes to pair with drinking) and yakitori (skewers grilled hibachi-style over charcoal). Chef Keng-Hao Chiu (ex-Supernormal) has designed the menu with fine-dining gun-for-hire Mia Coady-Plumb.

Karaage chicken.
Karaage chicken. Photo: Justin McManus

The whole chicken is honoured. Thigh is crumbed and fried for an exceptionally crunchy karaage. Chicken skin (torikawa) is poached in sake-spiked chicken stock, sliced thinly and dressed with ponzu and daikon to create a wildly alluring bowl of spongy noodles.

Heart, gizzard, liver, skin and boned-out wing are all threaded onto skewers with gorgeous, gutsy nose-to-tail commitment. Even rendered fat is used on the grill.

The average Australian eats more than 45kg of chicken a year, most of it farmed industrially and consumed carelessly, as sandwich filler or nuggets or boring breasts from styrofoam trays.

Sake and soy raised pork belly and turnips with super-hot mustard.
Sake and soy raised pork belly and turnips with super-hot mustard. Photo: Justin McManus

This chicken is free-range, appreciated for its many parts and qualities, cooked with respect and served with pride.

It's not all chicken. King-brown mushrooms and shishito peppers are among the veg yakitori offerings.

Pork belly and turnips are slow-braised in sake and soy to sticky tenderness and served with super-hot mustard.

Chikuzen ni is a sublime, delicate dish of braised carrot, daikon, taro, lotus root and konnyaku, a starchy tuber.

Saury (a small, oily mackerel-like fish) is grilled whole, guts and all.

Everything is simple, thoughtful and – chicken or not – so good with beer.

Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)

Also try

Budapest

There are lots of central European beers at this Hungarian mainstay, many of them perfect with a schnitzel. Czech pilsners and lagers are classic but there's also a Hungarian cherry beer and German weissbier to consider.

273 Glen Huntly Road, Elsternwick, 03 9530 0849, budapest.com.au

Samsam Chicken

Chicken and beer is so cemented in South Korean culture that there's even a word for it: "chimaek" mashes together the words for "chicken" and beer (maekju). As well as eating and drinking, check out the robot that helps with the cooking.

207-209 Swanston Street, Melbourne, 03 8528 5178, samsamchicken.com

Belles Hot Chicken

Nashville-style fried chicken is the deal at this diner. Though the drinks focus is natural wine, beer fans can slake a thirst with American Pabst, classic Melbourne Bitter and trendy sour beer. There are chicken and waffles on weekends!

150 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 03 9077 0788, belleshotchicken.com

https://www.benchwarmerbar.com.au/