Barrio Eatery & Bar is a gem of a restaurant, a place we’d class as ‘destination dining’, and well worth seeking out.
It’s situated smack bang in the middle of Habitat, an eco-friendly business and accommodation complex which opened in late 2017 in Byron Bay’s industrial area.
Barrio means “neighbourhood” in Spanish, a home away from home where the local community can meet, relax, and enjoy all-day dining. It fits seamlessly into its surrounding space, with owner Dan Wyllie (ex-Flinders Lane NYC and Saxon + Parole NYC) involved in the development.
Barrio’s name also denotes local and casual. With Dan overseeing front of house, the service is friendly and efficient, food and drinks accessible from takeaway coffee and a sandwich to stunning twilight cocktails or a smart casual date night. This is just as much a restaurant for locals as it is for those who travel to dine here.
Barrio is a flow-through concrete-floored industrial space, attention focussed on the long bar and open kitchen. Fire and earth dominate the visual conversation. At one end of the greenery-clad bar there’s a cabinet laden with toasties, pastries, brekkie bowls and salad available to go. At the other, the open wood-fired oven and charcoal grill taking pride of place. The bar faces a sprawling 80-seat communal dining room, flowing outside to umbrella-shaded tables and gorgeously landscaped gardens.
Fire is elemental, the concept of gathering around a fire a communal experience. Even though we don’t gather in the same way that people did millennia ago, the concept still holds. The oven and grill have always been the driving force of Barrio’s rustic cuisine, part of a culinary philosophy that respects and enhances the flavours of the produce itself kissed by flame.
With the arrival of new Head Chef Santiago Socrate, the elegant simplicity of Barrio’s menu has been raised to another level. Training with Peruvian chef Eddie Castro at Osaka in Buenos Aires (currently no.38 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list), and more recently Head Chef at Harvest Newrybar, Chef Santiago combines the traditional Argentinian fire and earth cooking methods from his homeland with European techniques and Australian flavours he has gathered on his culinary journey.
“I cook with local Northern Rivers ingredients, while playing with the techniques I learnt from watching my family cook when I was growing up in Argentina,” he says.
Praising the ‘unreal quality’ of Northern Rivers produce, Santiago notes that ‘local farmers are all so passionate about what they are producing’. Starting with the best hand-picked produce, such as French’s Valley marbled beef or Byron Bay Mozzarella Company’s stracciatella, products he can name by source, Santiago uses fire and ferment to enhance and create a layering of flavours.
“I guess I have created my own language in cooking. I incorporate many cooking techniques I have acquired over the years but applying them with fire,” he says, describing the way he utilises every aspect of the wood fire, from the flames to the hot ashes by using a complex arrangement of hooks, chains and flames that allow for simultaneous fast and slow cooking.
“There is so much more to do because fire is such a fragile and beautiful thing. The heat from the embers is unique in cooking, and the fire requires the use of all our senses to ensure our cooking is on point. Simplicity is key.”
While ‘simplicity’ may be the key to cooking over fire, its effects are not, adding tendrils of smoke, caramelisation and the complex layering of flavour that Santiago continues away from the fire.
Garnishing flavours from indigenous and traditional food sources, Santiago’s philosophy is all about respecting the product and minimising waste. He may just as readily experiment with coffee grounds to make pumpkin molasses glaze, or indigenous foods such as lemon aspen, Tasmanian pepper, kelp or Davidson plum to enhance his dominant ingredient.
Santiago credits his parents for his culinary creativity: “From a young age I always loved to watch my parents cooking in Argentina, and I would help any way I could. They taught me to improvise in the kitchen. A recipe can help guide the culinary process and provide a framework for a dish, but it can also be looked at as a jumping off point. They taught me to trust my culinary instincts and not be afraid to shake things up. I’m still putting this lesson to practice in the kitchen at Barrio Eatery & Bar,” Santiago says.
“I like to play with layers of flavour: acidic, bitter, salty, sweet…” he tells us, describing the vibrant piquancy he achieves through pickles and ferment.
The single page menu ranges through small to large share plates and vegetables, each as stunning as the next.
Larger dishes such as wood-grilled beef sirloin with chimichurri or char-grilled swordfish with broccoli puree and almond salsa are excellent for shared dining, but as a couple, we could just as easily dine on smaller dishes and vegetables alone.
Wood-roasted pumpkin with soy miso cream and hazelnuts is an absolute winner, as are the roast kipfler potatoes with seaweed salt; two dishes of many more we would like to try.
From the simple signature dish of cured kingfish, pickled cucumbers and pink peppercorns (Santiago’s favourite ingredient at the moment for its fresh and aromatic flavour), to local baby octopus with chorizo and XO, it’s often one element that raises a dish to the next level.
“We make our own XO sauce using dried octopus heads and a 6-month fermented garum from the octopus offal. These elements impart a rich umami flavour, elevating the octopus, which is lightly smoked as it’s grilled over embers,” says Santiago, indicating the kitchen’s range of ferments in jars on the end of the bar.
Moving from plate to plate, our meal is a feast of flavour completely different to any we’ve tried before; an epicurean adventure utilising a broad spectrum of world flavours enhanced by age-old ingredients and fermentation techniques.
Despite its casual presentation, achieving this level of complex flavour on a plate is a work of culinary artistry.
Yet, humbly understated and grounded, Santiago describes himself and his own work in just a few words: “I like to keep it local, seasonal and simple. So, I would say I am a simple guy.”
Simple? If this is ‘simple’, we can’t get enough of it.
Barrio Eatery & Bar, 1 Porter Street, Byron Bay NSW Open: Mon – Sat 7am – 3pm; Wed – Sat 5pm – late
NOTE: Good Food Gold Coast dined as guests of Barrio Eatery & Bar.