Ancient Babylon was a city famed for its architecture, culture and science. Rich and magnificent, it was the centre of an energetic empire. Its hanging gardens were once considered so opulent and mesmerising that they were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Fast forward a couple of thousand years and, whereas the ancient Babylon is no more, a new Babylon has risen, right here in Newcastle. You won’t find any hanging gardens, but you’ll find gorgeous architecture, opulent surrounds and an almost scientific devotion to beverages, especially cocktails.
Babylon is in the old Methodist Mission building on King Street. Its brick facade belies the stunning design inside and the new owner has taken advantage of that feel to transform it into a 1920s-inspired bar. The interior is dark and moody, with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, not plants. The focus is on whisky, cocktails and craft beer on tap, with food to complement.
The drinks are taken very seriously. The wall behind the bar is laden with rows upon rows of whisky, gin and spirits bottles.The drinks menu has pages of cocktails: traditional and creative; a largely Australian wine list and tasting sets for gin, tequila, brandy, as well as Irish, Scotch, Japanese, Australian or a mix of whiskies. Did you know India produced a single malt?
If you’re here for just a few drinks, the charcuterie or cheese plates have plenty of tasty somethings to nibble on while you sip. If you’re here for the night, there is more hearty fare on hand. Tables can be reserved and others are available for walk-ins. Babylon really sits in that space between a bar and a restaurant.
The menu is a blend of grazing, feeding and indulgence and is divided into oysters (natural, Bloody Mary, Kilpatrick, Rockefeller and mornay), small shares, large shares, charcuterie and separate offerings for lunch and after dark (9pm).
Food is ordered at the bar, but it takes a short while to figure that out. You are greeted at the door and shown to your table, but nowhere is it written that table service stops there. With so much happening in the bar area there’s no clear space to place your order. It’s a little vague. Anyway, once we’re past that and our food is ordered, it arrives fairly promptly, despite it being a busy Friday night.
First on the table are the pork, fennel and ricotta meatballs served on a smoked tomato pulp. The three meatballs are flavoursome, firm and big and melted lashings of parmesan on top. The pulp is indeed smoky and juicy and you could easily mop it up with some of the warm bread and butter on offer. Seared scallops with smoked bacon jam are plump and delicate, if a little cold. The chunky bacon jam is sweet and salty and offsets the scallop nicely. Some nori-flavoured sand runs the length of the plate, making for a cute seascape of tastes and textures.
When it comes to mains, if you’ve got a group, or you’ve worked up an appetite, try the large lamb shoulder with mash or the rib-eye with blue cheese, fig and sherry butter. We tuck into a wide bowl of steamed Tasmanian mussels cooked in white wine, cream and shallots. It’s creamy and super-salty, but the mussels don’t absorb too much of that. The sauce is much better mopped up with the accompanying warm sliced baguette than it would be with frites – a savvy decision by the kitchen. You could also order a bowl of the roasted kipfler potatoes with saffron aioli to soak up the juices.
Despite its classy appearance, Babylon isn’t stuffy – it’s convivial and relaxed. Stop by for a drink or linger longer and indulge in the wonderful world of Babylon.
- What: Babylon, 145 King St, Newcastle.
- Contact: 4023 8443; babylonnewcastle.com.au
- Hours: Tues-Sun, 11.30am-midnight, Mon from 5pm.
- Owner: Phil Elsley
- Head chef: Rupert Fagg
- Take note: Takes reservations.
- Bottom line: Smalls $8-19; large $26-68.
- Must try: Pork & fennel meatballs & a beer.