When my sister and brother-in-law were in town earlier this year I told them about an upcoming trip I was doing to Brookfarm on the states north coast. My partner said he couldn’t join me, and jokingly big sis said that she’d come. Why the hell not?
Rather than head up for the day to check out the farm I thought I’d make a weekend of it; book an apartment at Kingscliff to chill and explore the area.
The northeast corner of the state is gorgeous, to say the least. Long expanses of sandy beaches, rocky headlands, rivers and farmland flanked by mountains of subtropical rainforest. The air is clean, the water is warm and I was about to immerse myself in all of it.
My sister – that so happens to live 1½ hrs north of Kingscliff – could only drive down later in the day, which meant that I had several hours to check in to the hotel, go for a walk along the stunning Salt Beach and tuck into some seafood at the local bistro.
The Mantra on Salt Beach was home for the next three nights. Some would say it’s a little isolated thanks to being located away from any town centre, but a strip of amenities known as Salt Village covers most bases in the food and booze categories. A convenience store, bottle shop, cafe, ice cream bar, fish & chip shop and several restaurants.
To help me ease into the beachy lifestyle and unwind from manic Sydney, it was a table for one at Saltbar for this city boy. It’s pretty much a sprawling club where you can take the family for a no-fuss meal, or meet up with mates to get on the booze and watch some sport or place a few bets on the horses.
A schooner of beer and a seafood plate for one (36). Tiger prawns, oysters, salmon done two ways, calamari, prawn cones and chips.
Not feeling like driving anywhere for dinner, we decided to settle into Fins, also on the Salt Village strip. One thing that Fins tends to do is split the restaurant in two and operate as seafood-centric modern Australian on one side of the Salt Village walkway, and the other as a pop-up.
We went with the pop-up as I’d already sussed out their Izakaya menu earlier in the day before my sister arrived. I’d been craving Japanese already and the menu sounded just the ticket. And you’ve got to love that the restaurant even printed the pronunciation of izakaya on the menu. Ee-zah-kai-yah. It sounds a treat when you say it with a broad Aussie accent.
A few plates was all we wanted, plus of course the obligatory vino. What’s a catch-up without vino, hey? When there’s beef tataki (19), or anything like it on a menu, it inevitably makes it to the spread. Our plate was fresh-from-the-fridge cold; sliced beef that was clearly prepped, plated and cling-wrapped – ready for service. Rather than let it sit for a few minutes so the tataki could relax and separate from the icy plate, we struggled to get it off with chopsticks. Still, it had some nice flavours going. Peppery watercress, eschallots and a very mild wasabi mayo.
Our pork gyoza (8) put us through another “unsticking” challenge. Presented in a small bamboo steamer, the four little dumplings wanted to get from the table to our mouths, but not having a disc of oiled parchment or even a leaf prevented that from happening the way it should. Every one of them tore into pieces as the top of the wrapper split from the bottom, bursting the filling and juices into the steamer. A neighbouring table was clearly having the same problem, even going as far as using a chopstick to scrape the dumplings off the bamboo. Not fun.
The barbecue wagyu skirt (25) required no manual prying from the rice on which it rested. Cooked medium rare, the tender and juicy meat was spiked with ponzu and scattered with young watercress. Another meaty plate was the sake-flamed pork (25). Rather anaemic in appearance and a perfect contender for those that like their meat well-done. I did like the subtle sake flavour coming through and especially loved the slightly caramelised sushi rice cake that came with it.
I’m not sure whether it was the fresh air, the fact that I could hear the surf from our apartment or that I wasn’t in Sydney, but my body decided to wake up at dawn. I didn’t fight it. I’m never the sleep-in type of guy and instead sat on the balcony and breathed in the salty and humid air.
When it was light enough I went for a sunrise walk to the beach – merely a minute away – crunching through the native coastal brush past foraging bush turkeys and onto the sandy beach. The surfers were already out trying to catch a wave churned up from an off-shore storm.
It was breakfast time and thanks to Salt Village we didn’t have to walk too far for a morning coffee and our first meal of the day. Aside from the hotel buffet, Saltbean Espresso Bar is one of the only places in the immediate area to grab breakfast. Order and pay at the counter, nab a table and wait for the friendly young guys to deliver the goods.
Muesli, breads & pastries, cooked breakfasts and organic and locally-grown coffee by Byron Bay roaster – Bun Coffee. It was a big hello to the French toast (12.5) when it landed in front of me. Impossibly fluffy brioche, golden and doused in maple syrup. A slice of caramelised banana brought a fruity component, plus a gorgeous berry compote that sweetly bled onto the plate.
A rather large door-stop of toasted banana bread (6.5) challenged big sis, and on another visitation I tucked into some smoked salmon and avocado (15.9). Hefty in size as well, the Turkish toast is topped with free range poached eggs and rocket.
Yet another place to grab a bite at Salt Village is Bellini, a casual and airy restaurant that dishes up some pretty good Mediterranean fare. Once again we ordered a bunch of plates to share whilst sipping on Italian vino.
A dish that made everyone in the restaurant stop and gaze each time it came from the kitchen was the flaming haloumi (17). I must say it’s one of the best haloumi dishes I’ve sunk my teeth into. Seasoned with herbs and olive oil, some grappa is poured over the slab of cheese before it’s struck and ignited. The result is soft, caramelised and beautifully flavoured cheese. Some char-grilled ciabatta, artichokes and olives come with it.
The crostini misti (12) is a trio of bruschetta with the “chefs selection of seasonal toppings”. For $12 the portion is pretty generous and great value. Black olive with feta – basil, tomato and mozzarella – chopped char-grilled vegetables. All topped with baby rocket.
An insalata caprese (18) uses sweet cherry tomatoes marinated in balsamic and virgin olive oil, with fresh basil, capers, onion and giant wedges of creamy buffalo mozzarella. The cheese was amazing.
Finally, a more substantially-sized plate of granchio fritto (24). It had to be tried. Crispy polenta-crusted soft shell crab with a chilli crab salad, caponata and cuttlefish ink aioli. Juicy, crunchy and delicious.
Things may have been all self-contained and a little insular up at the Mantra, but it was a given that we jump into the car and explore the lush green landscape surrounding us. One place worth stopping at is the small town of Bangalow. Whilst the town has been touched by tourism, much of its charm has remained in the relaxed lifestyle its residents enjoy.
The name possibly comes from bangalla, a word that derives from the Banjalang aboriginals that lived here before European settlers moved in and took to the “Big Scrub” with saws. Bangalla means low hill or a type of palm tree – which is perfect as the historic town of just one main street sits neatly on rolling green subtropical foothills peppered with swaying palm trees.
Quirky shops, restaurants and cafés reside in colonial buildings with lofty verandahs that provide welcomed shade on blistering summer days. Locals shop for groceries, dogs wait obediently outside the local pub, and well-heeled tourists exchange cash for $80 candles.
Those of us that have a penchant for old things can even waft about vintage shops in search of a retro object. Heath’s Old Wares is one such place – more of a large shed than shop – this place is crammed with mainly industrial pieces from farms and factories. Old wooden ladders, lamps, crates, scales, ceramics and books. There’s a lot to take in.
Not all that far north of Bangalow is Mullumbimby, a place known for its farmers’ market and for being Australia’s “biggest little town”. With Mt Chincogan as its backdrop, “Mullum” has retained its local roots without embracing tourism like its Byron and Bangalow counterparts.
Well-seasoned locals, sea-change baby boomers and young folk that love the laid back lifestyle go about their daily activities. There’s a bit of an “organic” vibe going on with flashes of rainbow colours, herbal dispensaries, hemp clothing, dreadlocks and places to stock up on macrobiotic food.
Coffee was much needed for this pair and after a little sniffing about the streets, Punch and Daisy provided the jolt we were looking for. The digs are simple, airy and cosy and wouldn’t be out of place in any inner city neighbourhood. The beans are blended at local Moonshine roaster in the nearby village of Federal; offering two blends called “Punch” and “Daisy”. As for the food, expect fresh and healthy local produce with the likes of sandwiches, salads, a veggie burger and hot breakfasts.
My only gripe is those paper cups the coffee is served in.
A large banner hanging from The Middle Pub caught our attention. “25 main meals. Nothing over $15”. Now that’s enough to bring the tight-ass out of all of us. And I have a bit of a soft spot for an old Aussie pub, as well.
A latticed verandah sweeps around the 110 year old pub, providing a breezy spot to chow, drink and watch what’s going on in the street. Downstairs in the bar locals and visitors drink schooners and chardies whilst watching a footy game, or spreading out in the spacious rear dining room.
With food being this cheap it was a given that we order a few $15 plates. Bangers and mash is a classic pub staple so when we spotted Bangalow pork sausages & mash, we needed to have it. Bangalow pork is known for its high quality and rich, sweet flavour but the snags we got didn’t quite hit the mark. The mash was fine. The peas, onions and gravy were fine. But those sausages were sporting a wrinkled “deep-fried” skin with a very fine and very firm texture akin to those pale “bbq snags” you see at the supermarkets.
The beef ragù was a swoon-worthy, and rather enormous, bowl of pappardelle loaded with sweet and tomatoey sauce. Yet the pick of the bunch had to be the slow-cooked lamb shanks. These two huge lumps of goodness provided copious amounts of tender meat, slowly braised with vegetables and served over mash. Great stuff.
Many years have passed since I last set foot in Byron Bay. Can I say the mid 1980s? It was a long weekend fishing trip with my brother, dad and his mates. I still remember a very small coastal town with a caravan park and camping ground, the bare minimum of services and a petrol station.
The Byron of today is a very different place. City folk sipping on chai lattés, spending up on high-end fashion brands, chowing on raw and activated foods and taking pouted selfies down on the beach. To be fair, you can still get your greasy fish & chips or burger & shake if you wish; even some good old Oz-Chinese. It’s a beachy paradise where almost anything goes and footwear and brushing your hair is optional.
In the mid-80’s I didn’t even know what a piccolo latté was but the me of today needed one almost as soon as we parked the car. It was the Campos sign that first got my attention, a Sydney bean that I’m all too familiar with. Where are we? Oh, it’s called Byron Fresh. My sister, a well-frequented Byron visitor, always thought the café was called Campos. Easily assumed when there are more signs advertising the bean than the places real name.
The menu looked decent enough – um, hello confit Bangalow pork belly with chorizo, caramelised apples and jus – but a dose of coffee was all this city boy needed. Great spot for people-watching, might I add.
After a leisurely walk along the beach we somehow gravitated to The Balcony. Hold on, it was another sign advertising something cheap. It was $6 happy hour! Not only does this place offer some very nice-sounding International food, and some Aussie favourites, but the upstairs balcony has the best view over Jonson Street.
Thai food was on the agenda and as we sat out on the Traditional Thai terrace watching cockatoos and fruit bats flap overhead, a refreshing morsel of fresh pineapple topped with julienned green papaya eased us into the evening.
One thing for sure is that this place requires a booking. Arrive early and they may have a few seats for you. Come after 7 and you’ll be considering a plan b. The TT crew pride themselves on sourcing all of their produce locally, using only Australian seafood and pounding their own curry pastes in-house.
Big sis had already eaten here and jumped straight onto one of her favourites – the duck spring rolls (6). Tender shreds of roasted duck, vegetables and a lot of flavour. I needed to try the seared Tasmanian scallop (4.5) lightly dressed with ginger, chilli and spring onion. Simplicity at its best. A serious go-to was the betel leaf (4.5), topped with a tangle of toasted coconut, prawn and pork.
I loved the crispy soft shell crab (18), wok-tossed with bean sprouts, chilli and herbs and served in an egg net. Talk about a treasure trove of goodies. Just a pity the crab was far and few between.
The crispy pork hock (12) didn’t skimp on the chilli or the caramel, but sadly the meat was more overcooked and jerky-like than crispy.
It was the sound of the coconut-poached chicken (17) & wing bean salad with coconut tamarind dressing that prompted me to order it. Many beautiful textures and colours going on, but flavour-wise, it was a celebration of sugar. Severely overdressed with barely any other flavours coming through. “Sickly sweet”, some would say.
Back at Salt Beach on our final morning I got one last sunrise in – crunching on fallen banksia leaves, footprints on the sand – before jetting back home.
* Return flights covered by Brookfarm. All other expenses paid by hnf.