Karkalla review

By day, the dining space feels casual, its mix of tables, chairs and hard metal stools spilling onto the street.
By day, the dining space feels casual, its mix of tables, chairs and hard metal stools spilling onto the street.  Photo: Elise Derwin

10 8 Fletcher St Byron Bay, NSW 2481

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Opening hours Dinner Wed-Sun from 5pm; lunch Thurs-Mon noon-3pm
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Phone 02 5614 8656

I'm in Byron Bay – who isn't? – drinking Brookie's Slow Gin steeped in Davidson's plum, and slathering wattleseed butter onto torn-off slabs of extraordinarily good damper. "Jingi wallah," says the menu. "Hello and welcome to Karkalla."

Owner and proud Bundjalung woman of the Widjabul Wia-bul clan, Mindy Woods, calls her new life a leap of faith. The former CEO of Lotus Dining in Sydney, she returned home to open a small corner restaurant in late 2020 with her wife Rachelle Bakarich.

Her menu, with head chef Michael Petrou, gives indigenous ingredients a natural place to shine – and yes, karkalla, that crunchy, salty beach succulent, stars.

Karkalla's new menu gives indigenous ingredients a natural place to shine.
Karkalla's new menu gives indigenous ingredients a natural place to shine. Photo: Elise Derwin

By day, the dining space feels casual, its mix of tables, chairs and hard metal stools spilling onto the street. With its textured walls and metal lights, it could still be Safya, the Middle Eastern restaurant it once was, but for the food.

At a slow and sunny lunch, stems of saltbush come crisply fried ($8) with smoked chilli and bush tomato sauce ("better than chippies" says a neighbouring diner), and a bowl of fabulous Coopers Shoot tomatoes topped with creamy burrata ($27) is a joy to a southerner who said goodbye to genuinely ripe tomatoes some time ago.

Green curry of local snapper and Kinkawooka mussels ($29) is punched up with lemon myrtle, pepper leaf and saltbush, drizzled with coconut cream and topped with karkalla leaves.

Warm damper bread with wattleseed butter.
Warm damper bread with wattleseed butter. Photo: Elise Derwin

On the side, scrunchy folds of roti bread for dipping, and a peachy, citrusy 2018 Sew and Sew Sashiko Chardonnay from McLaren Vale ($14/$65).

At night, Karkalla goes all Byron, with windows thrown open to the street, cushions colonising the banquette, and a menu that reflects the coastal landscape with fish and seafood all but pushing meat off the menu.

I've pre-booked the option of the "Best Seafood Platter in Byron" for $80 a person; a clever initiative that's pure catnip to the well-heeled Byron-bound visitor. It turns out to be a multi-course menu that kicks off with lightly pickled sardines on toast with finger lime cream, just the thing with a native negroni.

Crunchy saltbush with smoked chilli and bush tomato sauce (left), and South Ballina pipis with house-made XO butter.
Crunchy saltbush with smoked chilli and bush tomato sauce (left), and South Ballina pipis with house-made XO butter. Photo: Elise Derwin

Then the seafood lands, piled high on ice – a real wow moment that has heads turning. Now I know why Ms Woods has been quietly, patiently, working at the kitchen bench for some time now – the large blue swimmer crab shell is filled with meticulously hand-picked crab meat; a luxurious bathtub in which to wallow.

Also: half a dozen Brunswick River oysters, some with a vibrant hibiscus dressing, a couple of big Moreton Bay bugs, and two split and grilled prawns with a saltbush and sea parsley butter.

A "native mignonette" is a moreish blend of native Dorrigo pepper, pickled muntries, chardonnay vinegar, bush honey and shallots that deserves to be bottled on behalf of oysters everywhere.

Karkalla fish curry with mussels and roti.
Karkalla fish curry with mussels and roti. Photo: Elise Derwin

And the food keeps coming. The natural sweetness of South Ballina pipis is warmed by a fruity house-made XO chilli butter. A dish of super-crusty deep-fried calamari feels as if it's there only for people who need something deep-fried.

And throughout, that warm, round ball of beautifully dense, crisply crusted damper, with its dusky wattleseed butter topped with activated and roasted wattleseed.

Dessert is superfluous, but a moulded chocolate and wattleseed fudge cake ($18) layered with dark chocolate mousse and sandalwood nut praline is pleasant enough. Its hauntingly sweet bush honey ice-cream even prompts an immediate order of extra serves by a neighbouring table.

Cured kangaroo with wattleseed, muntries, karkalla and hazelnuts.
Cured kangaroo with wattleseed, muntries, karkalla and hazelnuts. Photo: Janie Barrett

An easy, natural sense of hospitality pervades Karkalla, and it seems to take people by surprise. They gush their thanks as they leave; they rave about the Dorrigo pepper, the saltbush, the bush honey, the Australianness.

It's got to them somehow, this funny little diner with its big heart on its sleeve, its stories of country and its willingness to let everyone in and make their own connections. Dine here, and you can't forget where you are. Not in Byron Bay. On Bundjalung land.

The low-down

Karkalla

Vegetarian Heaps of options, it's Byron Bay

Drinks Cocktails infused with native botanicals, local craft brews and gins and a short, mainly Australian wine list.

Pro tip Fries come with pepperberry salt – addictive or what?

Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.

https://www.karkalla.com.au/