South Coast Review: Rick Stein’s at Bannisters

So this site is getting a bit schizophrenic (yes, I know, no letters from the mental health lobby please), and what with all the politics, media, and culture posts, to say nothing of the overseas guests lately hosted at Chateau d’Prick, there’s been little time to post restaurant reviews. Let’s change that, eh? First up in this week’s great clearing of the backlog: Rick Stein’s at Bannisters, down in Mollymook on the beautiful New South Wales south coast.

Now a question that any regular restaurant-goer asks, especially in a place like Australia that puts so much premium on “water views” is, is there a connection between the quality of a restaurant’s food and the impressiveness of its outlook? For the longest time I thought so, and dismissed venues that touted their views rip-off joints run by canny owners catering to tourists and the “special occasion” crowd of middle-class punters and proposers who don’t know any better. Restaurants at the top of towers spring to mind (there are exceptions), as does a certain seafood joint on Circular Quay.

Likewise, celebrity chefs. What’s in a name? How can a restaurateur, like the head of any empire, maintain control of ever more far-flung outposts and still keep the quality up?

This week I’ve been reading Michael Steinberger’s entertaining study of the rise and fall of French cuisine, Au Revoir to All That, and he details (among other things) how the likes of Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse were, once they started franchising their name around the globe, unable to keep it together. And I had occasion to think about both these problems as I sat down to lunch at Rick Stein’s at Bannisters down at Mollymook on the south coast of New South Wales. It was something of an occasion; we’d been staying at a beach house nearby with my farther, out for a visit from the US.

Mrs Prick and I had last visited almost 18 months ago, during the Christmas holidays, and were able to sit out on the deck. This April, though, a chill southerly kept us all inside the dining room, which is all plate-glass windows and bright finishes: there’s a bit of art around the place, and a painting of Stein’s sadly deceased Jack Russell, Chalky, by the entrance, but when the weather’s up one cannot escape a little of the feeling of a well-appointed first class airport lounge. Thankfully there were no Fly-In, Fly-Out mine workers or neck-tattooed Bandidos getting wrecked at the bar, otherwise the joint would have been immediately downgraded to business.

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In the raw

As we did last time, we started off with platters of sashimi for the table while we considered our next moves. And as always, the produce was excellent: fresh and gem-like. I preferred the tuna, but everyone had a different favourite.

We had quite a time deciding what to have next. The whole family, even the Little Pricks, had been downing Faroukian quantities of oysters the previous few nights and so decided to give them a rest this day, though I now regret not getting some of the “oysters charentaise”, described on the menu as A seemingly odd combination – freshly opened oysters with some hot, spicy sausages.  The idea is that you eat an oyster, take a bite of the sausage, then a good gulp of cold white wine.” Instead, Mrs Prick and I went for the fish and shellfish soup, which was just a simple bowl of liquid – but what liquid! Rich, reddish-brown, it had that wonderful funky low-tide taste, and a bit of rouille and parmesan brought a rounding heat and richness.

Young Nick With a Fork, meanwhile, had the “Carpaccio of Salmon with a Soy, Miso and Rice Vinegar Dressing”, which included some tasty sticks of crisped-up salmon skin, like a fish crackling.

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Fancy-pants!

This was about the fanciest presentation I have ever encountered here: For better or worse, there’s no faffing around with foams or soils or microherbs in this kitchen. It’s all about getting fish on a plate.

On to mains: Mrs Prick had the fish pie, which she pronounced delicious, so good in fact that I didn’t really get a chance to get a photo, much less a taste. The kids all went the kids menu – they cater for well-behaved children well here, and in fact at the next table was a couple with their gaggle of small girls who turned out to be friends of friends from back home. Big, puffy, fish and chips and grilled barramundi went down a treat.

Dad and I meanwhile had the lobster, which was great but may have been a miscalculation. At something like $27 per 100 grams of pre-cooked weight, this is not something to be undertaken on a lark. Decadent pricks that we are, we called for one done a la thermidor, and one served in a sauce of lobster fumet and herbs.

The verdict: Good, but not great. The thermidor was dry, an unforgiveable sin at any price, though the fumet lobster was delicious (and was the favourite of our waiter). Not only the advertised herbs came through, but delicate hints of other aromatics as well. Was there something almost Eastern in this preparation?

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Two generations of lobstermen at work

So the question is, can a good meal be had at a celebrity chef’s restaurant, and one with a stunning view at that? The answer, I would say, is a guarded yes. Still, other things struck off-notes. From the car park, Bannisters looks pretty shabby, all painted cinder blocks and open balconies leading to the rooms. The dining room is great, as is the view, but they’re obviously counting on everyone staring in one direction, because just behind us you could see right into an exposed, fluorescent-lit service corridor.

That said, the service was tremendous and struck just the right note: casual and informal while deeply knowledgeable and respectful at the same time. The wine list, while not huge, is very good value. And there really is no place like it in the area. We will be back, no doubt, but I think I may order more judiciously next time.

Rick Stein at Bannisters on Urbanspoon

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