It's an exciting time for diners in Newcastle.
Not only are luxury hotel groups like QT and Crystalbrook investing in the city, bringing with them top-shelf chefs and fresh ideas, local restaurateurs are also branching out.
ÂPÉ Yakitori Bar opened this week at Honeysuckle and it is a welcome addition to the city's eclectic mix of venues and cuisines. Located next door to sister restaurant Nagisa Japanese Restaurant, it is the brainchild of Taiyo Namba and his team.
ÂPÉ is pronounced "ah-pay" which Namba says "means fire in indigenous Japanese".
He looked quietly confident at Tuesday night's soft launch however was running a critical eye over every glass, every plate, every member of staff. A standard was set in Newcastle when he opened Nagisa in 2004 with his father Tetsuhiko, and Namba is determined that it be upheld or, even better, exceeded.
ÂPÉ Yakitori Bar's interior is a combination of urban industrial and Japanese tradition. Soft light emanates from a large spherical feature above the bar, and flashes of fire from the open kitchen. The vibe is modern and moody, and the music upbeat.
You could be in Melbourne, escaping the winter chill down at as venue hidden along one of its trendy laneways.
Architect Ben Berwick, who also designed Nagisa and Namba's other Newcastle restaurant, Susuru Ramen & Gyoza, says fire acts as the "catalysing agent between element and dish" and, similarly, "gives warmth and brings people together".
"Fire is heat and light. We wanted to replicate a warm light within the space to bring together people and design.
"Yakitori is elemental. The design riffs off this, using base, natural elements with low embodied energy - from mycelium wall panels, to leather made from pineapples, set on a stripped back base build that echoes tenancies of past."
Namba says houses in Japan traditionally had an 'irori' (fire pit) in the centre. Life happened around this core. Conversations were had.
The open kitchen is the beating heart of ÂPÉ, with diners able to watch on as Chilean-born head chef Nicolas Pedemonte (former sous chef at Nagisa) and his team quietly but determinedly work their magic.
There is a long bar table facing the kitchen for those seeking an up close and personal kitchen-to-table dining experience.
The food offering is yakitori style, one of Japan's most popular dishes. Seasoned meat, fish or vegetables are placed on skewers and grilled over a charcoal flame. It's simple but tasty, easy to eat, and designed to complement cocktails - of which there are many.
The drinks menu is a work of art. I was partial to the Op. 26 (Finlandia Vodka, Chinola Passion Fruit Liqueur, G.E. Massenez Apricot Brandy, $20) and bought a bottle of the Swift Brut Rose (Orange), which I developed a taste for at previous Nagisa visits.
Ask Yohei Namba for a sip of his favourite sake.
READ MORE: Susuru spices up the menu
We sampled a selection of skewers: the Wagyu MBS 9+ chuck rib (Binnie Beef, Hunter Valley) with smoked salt; the dry aged pork belly (Murray Valley) with cultured butter and shichimi; the chicken breast (Little Hill, Hunter Valley) with umeboshi, fresh shiso and dried yuzu; and scallops with white miso yuzu butter, sansho pepper and sake.
The aged lamb rack (Pukara Farm, Hunter Valley), 12 dry aged with salsa verde melted in your mouth, and the dry aged salmon (Tasmania), 12 dry-aged with sansho pepper and wakame salt was tender and flavoursome. Our chosen sides were yellow/green beans (Good Growers, Maitland) and baby corn (again, Good Growers, Maitland) with cultured butter and shichimi.
Namba said there were "a few things to iron out" but overall he was "very happy".
"The atmosphere and vibe is great, I think the offering is amazing, and we're very lucky to be working with local farmers providing great produce," he says.
"The feedback has been amazing, and many people are saying they will be back to try the signature cocktails and the rest of the menu.
"The great thing about yakitori is you can have a couple of skewers or 10, or do a full dining experience with great cocktails and wine."
Curious passers-by stopped to have peek at the bar, which bodes well for its future. Namba agrees. He and his team are still deciding whether to take bookings or walk-ins.
"We aren't 100 per cent sure yet but we're thinking of doing a 70 per cent booking, 30 per cent walk-in ratio, but we will test and see," he says.
"It's great that this strip in Honeysuckle has now got seven food and beverage establishments that are working together to make it a true destination within Newcastle."
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