Like a breath of spring air in the heat of summer, Bistro Livi has breezed into town, telling us that change is in the air.
Livi was February 2022’s gift to the land of plenty, the restaurant Murwillumbah didn’t know they needed, the place that many in the Northern Rivers had only dreamed of.
Taking up one corner of the art deco Murwillumbah Arts Precinct, Bistro Livi is the sort of establishment one would expect to find in a capital city or a coastal tourist resort.
Instead, the restaurant’s floor to ceiling glass looks out on passers-by, artisan and local folks going about their daily lives with merely a nod to its presence. The simple European elegance of Bistro Livi might seem completely out of place here were it not for Kat Harvey Cheese tucked just around the corner, the country town’s first foray into the ‘wide world’ of cheese. Instead, together they define the smartest corner in town, a portent of revival.
Designed by David Flack of Flack Studio, Bistro Livi casts a warm glow of burnished metal, green leather, stained timber, and herringbone terracotta, continuing the Mediterranean theming of its predecessor Bacaro. However, it’s more classic Spanish in its sophistication rather than the boisterous vibe of an Italian trattoria.
Given its polished presence, it’s surprising to learn that this is a homecoming of sorts, Livi’s owners returning to their roots in the Northern Rivers to start their first restaurant after working in some of Melbourne’s most respected hospitality venues.
In the kitchen is Ewen Crawford, who has spent over a decade working with Frank Camorra at Movida, and Danni Wilson, who honed her skills at the Carlton Wine Room.
The essence of Livi’s food is simplicity, the share plate menu inspired by the classic dishes the trio discovered on their travels through Spain. They’re tastes to remember, to wonder, ‘How was that made?’, to return to enjoy the dish again, only to find that the menu has changed.
In fact, each day brings a new menu with dishes informed by supply of the best produce the Northern Rivers has to offer, sourced by shopping at the weekly farmers’ markets on different days, and working directly with local farmers and producers.
We dine at Bistro Livi on a weekend lunch, when the restaurant is fully booked. We begin our meal with freshly baked house bread to dip in fruity olive oil beside a smoky dish of Jervis Bay pickled mussels.
We follow this up with the Venetian specialty dish Baccalà Mantecato, which we slather on grilled toast. It’s noted on the menu as Whipped salt cod, made from slabs of dried, salted fish commonly seen hanging in restaurant kitchens around Europe.
“The bars, restaurants and wandering the cobbled streets of Cadiz, Sanlucar and Seville are some of my favourite food experiences and are the biggest influences on my cooking,” says Ewen Crawford.
“All of the elements are simple, but combined make for a magical experience. With the beautiful ingredients of the region, we can create honest, confident, delicious food.”
We continue our meal with Fraser Island spanner crab, served with butter fragrant with curry leaves and spelt flatbread. The curried crab is subtle and silky in texture; a dish you could keep eating no matter how large the plate. The flatbread, fresh off the grill, provides a solidarity to the freshly picked crab, making the delicate dish more substantial.
We could just as easily have begun with a plate of Cantabrian anchovies, moved on to a plate of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, the finest ham in the world, and finished with Grilled quail with sweet and sour sauce… but that’s for another food journey.
Service, too, is in experienced hands. Danni’s twin sister, Nikky Wilson, who managed Movida for numerous years, oversees front of house, the beverage list, focussing on minimal intervention wine producers and makers who respect both the fruit and land. She serves us a glass of Dalrymple pinot noir from Tasmania’s Pipers and Coal River Valley.
As we sit at midday in a full restaurant, Murwillumbah glides by, undaunted by the graceful presence that has just settled amongst them.
Perhaps this is a portent of things to come, a growing sophistication of country towns as talent moves away from ‘tried and true’ locales into new territory. No matter how it has happened, Murwillumbah has gained a rising star on its culinary landscape. It’s a new beginning.
Bistro Livi, M-Arts, 1A 1-3 Brisbane St, Murwillumbah NSW 2484 Ph: 0499 711 590 Open: Wed – Sat dinner; Sat lunch