July 14, 2023
1 / 6The Iron Yampi’s handsome order-at-the-bar dining room.Jennifer Soo
2 / 6Gnocchi with tomato and basil sauce.Jennifer Soo
3 / 6Black Angus scotch fillet with “Nan’s potato bake”.Jennifer Soo
4 / 6Bangers and mash (pork and fennel sausages with colcannon, caramelised onions and red wine sauce).Jennifer Soo
5 / 6Fish of the day.Jennifer Soo
6 / 6The Port Kembla pub buzzes with families.Jennifer Soo
I was going to begin this review with something like “it’s been a long time between drinks in Port Kembla”, but then I realised that I had never had a drink in Port Kembla until the other week. Every time I’ve passed through the old industrial town, it’s been so deserted that I wonder if I’ve been sucked into an episode of The Twilight Zone – that one where the bloke walks into a diner and the jukebox is playing, but no one’s around.
Maybe this is about to change. Or at least, I hope it is. The beach is gorgeous and the main drag is a functional museum of modernist architecture. Wollongong is only a short drive away, and the town really could – and should – be pumping. Recognising Port Kembla’s potential as a day-trip destination, young couple Ben Abraham and Justine Parkinson took a punt and opened The Iron Yampi in April.
Before you ask, the SS Iron Yampi was the first freighter to enter Port Kembla’s inner harbour, sometime around 1960. Its namesake bar and restaurant is a highly enjoyable place to spend a few hours in the Illawarra and despite the eerie stillness of the street outside, the place is buzzing when I visit on a Saturday afternoon.
Well, the beer garden is buzzing anyway, mostly with young families scoffing down chicken wings ($16) and hot chips ($10). The handsome order-at-the-bar dining room – smartly decorated with archive photographs of Port Kembla in its prime – is close to empty.
This is a shame because the cocktails are terrific. There’s a mandarin-flavoured mojito riff ($18) that’s all refreshment and tang with a dash of herbal Chartreuse; a negroni ($19) using cacao-infused vermouth to delicious effect; and something called “A Little Bitta Grace” ($19) featuring rye whiskey, Campari and bittersweet aperitif Picon. It’s served in a short glass with a big rock of hand-cut ice.
Hand-cut ice! That’s a statement of “we give a damn” if I’ve ever seen one in a regional bar. Heck, you don’t see it that often in Sydney. I later find out that Abraham and Parkinson also run Wollongong whisky bar Howlin’ Wolf, and the effort required for the ice makes a bit more sense. (Although, I remainclueless as to why the Yampi’s pop-cheese soundtrack has to be so loud. If I never hear Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It again, it will be too soon.)
Go-to dish: Black Angus scotch fillet with “Nan’s potato bake”.Jennifer Soo
Chef William Strong is on the pans and cooking slightly elevated pub classics. I sense he would like to elevate the food a bit further, but you’ve got to build up to sole meuniere in schnitzel country.
“I had ‘dauphinoise’ on the menu,” he tells us. “But no one really ordered it until we changed the name to ‘Nan’s potato bake’. Now it goes like the clappers.”
It’s a delicious layer-cake of silky spuds too, just-so crisp at the edges and sharing plate space with green beans, honey carrots and a Black Angus scotch fillet ($42) that’s rich and ruddy and properly rested. A massive puck of garlic butter is too much of a good thing for the job at hand; we gloss everything with a pepper gravy of far-reaching flavour instead.
Bangers and mash (pork and fennel sausages with colcannon).Jennifer Soo
There’s also bangers and mash ($26), which should be a mandatory for every pub-style menu. When you’re bored with bangers and mash, you’re bored with life. Here, you’ll get juicy (but not greasy) pork and fennel sausages lounging on a mountain of colcannon and smothered in caramelised onions and sticky red wine sauce. Another glass of fruit-dense Yelland & Papps Barossa shiraz ($12), please.
Other counter-meal favourites are accounted for, such as a sizeable chicken schnitzel ($24) and addictive curls of salt-and-pepper squid squiggled with yuzu aioli ($16). An entree of potato gnocchi ($22) is hefty enough to be a main, served in a Naples-style tomato sauce of requisite brightness.
When you’re bored with bangers and mash, you’re bored with life.
Barramundi usually excites me less than a new season of Storage Wars, but I do like the idea of it served over garlicky skordalia with toasted pine nuts ($36). Next time.
Also for next time: more shopping at Yakka Records across the road, opened by another young couple in October and trading in underground music, deli goods and craft booze. A stay at Port Kembla’s recently renovated mid-century bank sounds ace too. The stunning two-bedroom joint is anyone’s to book for a minimum of three nights.
Who needs other people for a weekend away when there’s a beach, a nice shower and one cracking bar?
Vibe: Modern country pub bringing new life to an old town
Go-to dish: Black Angus scotch fillet with Nan’s potato bake ($42)
Drinks: Top-notch cocktails and whisky, and a taut selection of beer and wine with a natural bent
Cost: About $90 for two, excluding drinks
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine
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