We never made it to Francisco’s Table, so today we’re trying to make up for lost experiences. (How we could miss a wandering chef setting up a feast on huge tables around the Northern Rivers region is beyond me!)
We’re talking acclaimed Argentinian chef Francisco Smoje, who’s now gained a permanent home as Head Chef at Barrio in Byron Bay’s Habitat, an eco-friendly business and accommodation complex opened in late 2017 in conjunction with Tristan and Kassia Grier (of Harvest Newrybar, Sparrow Coffee), and Dan Wyllie (Flinders Lane NYC, Saxon + Parole NYC).
“Food was very important in our family,” Francisco tells us. “My grandparents were Italian, and I grew up in Argentina, so both cultures have influenced my cuisine. My father was an artist and fabulous cook, so there was always space in the kitchen to play.”
Francisco has been cooking since he was 17, with celebrity chef Francis Mallman in Argentina before migrating to Australia aged 21 to be near the ocean. After travelling and working in top restaurants, such as Rockpool and Darley Street Thai, he settled in North NSW close to famous surf beaches, an area with exceptional produce that he loves.
Barrio means “neighbourhood” in Spanish, a home away from home where the local community can meet, relax, and enjoy for all-day dining.
It’s a sparsely-decorated concrete-floored industrial space, attention focussed on the long bar and open kitchen, the open wood-fired oven and charcoal grill taking pride of place at one end facing out to a sprawling 80-seat dining room of spacious communal tables as well as smaller spots for two or four.
It’s casual service with little formality. We order at the bar, and the food is delivered direct to the table but Dan, as manager, is both outgoing and obliging. This is all about community, after all.
In the couple of times we’ve visited, the menu has been slightly different, a seasonal nose-to-tail philosophy influencing cuisine.
However, the approach to cooking and presentation is the same. The oven and grill are the driving force of the rustic cuisine, the tradition of Smoje’s homeland that respects and enhances the flavours of the produce itself kissed by flame, presented as whole food to the table. It’s vibrant unpretentious comfort food with little intervention, not straying too far from the best Spanish traditions.
There’s a cabinet of takeaway goods, including a selection of sausage rolls, burgers and salads available to go.
We try some empanadas from the cabinet as entrée, their pastry golden and flaky, the filling of beef and corn generous and smoky from the grill.
Next come several dishes to share: Blackened eggplant, presented whole to the table, boasts the same smoky flavours as the empanadas, Snapper and salted cod are captured in a decadently short pie crust, charcoal beef ribs sliced and placed back along the bone are dressed with chimichurri and braised spring onion. Chicken on the bone is cooked over coals, well-seasoned, and served in chunks with a bright piri-piri sauce.
To finish, a Dulce de leche flan served with mascarpone is elegant and mouth-watering; pure indulgent delight.
Dining at lunchtime, we’re mindful of the journey home to the Gold Coast, so a St ALi coffee and a glass of Watervale Riesling suits the moment. For an evening, there are cocktails to enjoy and beers to suit sessional dining.
Unpretentious yet utterly cool, Barrio is destination dining – a place worth going out of your way to find, especially if you’re in ‘the neighbourhood’.
1 Porter Street, Byron Bay NSW Open: Mon – Tues 7am – 5pm; Wed – Sat 7am – 10pm