The Greca team opens its Japanese-izakaya sibling Yoko at Howard Smith Wharves
It’s been just under a year since the Howard Smith Wharves precinct officially launched to the public, but now the final gaps in its dining array are being filled. Today marks the opening of one of the most anticipated restaurants of the year – the brand-new Japanese-inspired bar and eatery from acclaimed restaurateur Jonathan Barthelmess. Taking cues from Japanese izakayas, Yoko specialises in fun dining, not fine dining. Officially opening today, Thursday November 21, Yoko artfully pairs a delightfully offbeat aesthetic with a menu of mouth-watering morsels and a drinks list that’ll be the envy of all but the most well-equipped bars.
After the launch of Greca last year, Jonathan Barthelmess had no plans to open another eatery at Howard Smith Wharves. At the time of Greca’s opening, the tenancy next door was already promised to another operator, but when those plans fell through Jonathan was approached with the prospect of taking it on. Initially hesitant to accept, Jonathan gradually started to realise the operational benefits of having two restaurants side by side – systems and staff were already in place, so he wouldn’t be starting from scratch this time. Gravitating back to his love of Japanese cuisine, Jonathan elected to implement a concept imbued with the fun pub-style atmosphere of Japanese izakayas, with strong Tokyo accents done in an Australian way. This isn’t the first time Jonathan has reimagined the izakaya experience (his Potts Point restaurant Cho Cho San has been operating since 2014), but this time around Jonathan was eager enhance the levels of fun, drawing influence drawn from Japan’s iconic music bars and quirky countercultural charm. After hiring ex-Aria head chef Ben Russell as the executive chef of his Brisbane operations, Jonathan got to work on building the conceptual foundations for Yoko, Howard Smith Wharves’ newest restaurant, which opens today Thursday November 21.
Much like his other venues, Jonathan has recruited longtime collaborator and interior architect George Livissianis to spearhead Yoko’s interior design. Inspired by the humble bento box, Jonathan’s brief was to craft a space that was deceptively simple on the surface, but featured a discernible complexity when the details are magnified. The resulting fit-out blends the rustic heritage of the building with a retro-futurist aesthetic and elements of casual izakaya-style comfort. The exterior riverside dining space features blond timber furniture, light-brown leather booths and yolk-yellow tiled serving stations. A mirror at one end of this shaded deck area reflects Yoko and Greca’s outdoor dining portions, creating the illusion of extra space stretching infinitely onwards. Inside, the main dining area evokes wild Space Age and Atomic Age-inspired architecture thanks to an ordered geometric layout, blond American ash plywood walls, vivid neon pinkish-red light fixtures, yellow-tiled bar, slushy machines and custom retro fridges (an example of the little details: the reeded-glass panels on the fridges match Yoko’s water glasses). Adding an extra element of fun, Jonathan’s collection of vinyl KAWS toys can be spotted around the place, while footage of Shibuya Crossing is projected onto the far wall. The kitchen is shielded by Japanese noren, but behind the dividers one can get a glimpse at the expansive kitchen and special equipment including a kakigori machine and hibachi charcoal grill. Still to come is Yoko’s upstairs vinyl bar, which will feature a poured-resin bar top, shelves of records and a continuation of the striking aesthetic below.
The food and drink
Kitak Lee (The Calile’s Lobby Bar, The Table at Kuro Kisumé and Sydney’s Momofuku Seiobo) has been recruited to head up the Yoko kitchen, working with Jonathan and Ben to finalise a menu that emphasises value for money, top-tier local produce and a sustainable zero-waste approach. Cast aside any pre-conceived notions of small portions – the plates at Yoko are hearty and perfect for sharing. The flavour profiles lean towards acidic, ponzu and citrus-based tones, rather than heavier mayo-doused morsels. The fun starts with a raw bar menu, flush with the likes of Hiramasa kingfish with sesame and cucumber, scallops with yuzu kosho and silken tofu, beef tartare, and fresh oysters with shiso vinaigrette. Tempura bites such as prawns and chicken karaage are followed by vegetarian, noodle and dumpling dishes such as kimchi okonomiyaki, pork katsu steamed buns, gyoza with mushroom ponzu and organic soba-noodle salads. The main event is comprised of large-format dishes including stuffed calamari with yuzukosho, fried pork-chop tonkatsu, teriyaki fish collar, wagyu porterhouse on the bone and pork kakuni bossam. Yoko’s dessert selection is particularly enticing, with match and mango sorbet soft-serves, mochi ice-cream with miso caramel, shave milk ice with kinako and caramelised pistachio ending proceedings on a sweet note. The drinks list, overseen by beverage gurus Perryn Collier and Nick Ingall, is light and balanced to match the food. A 150-strong wine list features 15 drops by the glass and an extra ten for its Tokyo Wine Club – a selection of premium wines not typically available by the glass. A selection of sake is available, with ten kinds sorted into categories (fruity, light and crisp, aromatic with rounded texture or full flavoured and complex) to make the selection process easier. Cocktails remain a key component as well, with seasonal fruit-based drinks including boozy slushies and whisky highballs. Rounding out the substantial beverage offering is a range of craft and mainstream beers, umeshu (plum wine), yuzu liqueur and shochu. The upstairs vinyl bar will be amply stocked with Japanese whiskies and a curated clutch of tequila.
Yoko is open from today. For opening hours and booking details, click over to the Stumble Guide.
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