TAVERNA fuses North Coast NSW’s SLEEPY BEACH charm with OLD-WORLD GREECE. Craig Tansley samples the region’s BEST NEW offering.
I HAVEN’T EVEN MADE IT inside Taverna and already my hackles are raised; there’s a showroom of $100,000-plus European cars parked outside. Much of the Far North Coast of New South Wales has been overtaken by the ‘fancy brigade’; boat shoe and polo shirt-wearers (with collars raised), swanning between lunches in shiny Porsche SUVs. The sleepy hamlet of Kingscliff was always a target, with a glorious river that cuts through town and its location just 20 minutes from Gold Coast Airport. But it takes barely 60 seconds for my fears to be allayed; there’s a down-home quality that you feel from the moment you’re inside. Perhaps it’s the rustic old brick floor, or the simple table settings; though more likely it’s the staff. There’s not a single ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ dining in Taverna today. I’m seated by the open front windows that look across to the Pacific Ocean and a rugged off-shore islet (Cook Island), though my view is dominated by a Moreton Bay fig tree full of sleeping corellas. It’s as if Santorini got fused into a jus with a Frederick McCubbin landscape. That’s not where the fusion ends. Owners Mark Wilson and Lia Mason (along with partner Lee Middendorf) run the region’s best-regarded eatery, Casuarina’s Osteria, and its blending of traditional Italian fare with modern Australian ideas is legendary in these parts. Taverna does the same, Greek-style. A signature dish I try first is a North Coast take on saganaki: Byron Bay haloumi, lightly fried and drizzled with bush honey washed down with Australia’s first Assyrtiko (produced by Jim Barry Wines). Fried cheese will always make new friends, but it’s actually the delicate dishes Taverna does so well like the confit ocean trout with artichoke hearts and goat’s cheese on a fresh apple and mint salad that I order as a main. And the fried local squid with seaweed crisps and a pink peppercorn mayo. Sure, I have neighbours in up-collared Ralph Lauren pink, but inside Taverna, it’s still the same Kingscliff my grandparents moved here for 35 years ago.
CLOCKWISE FROM FAR LEFT: Taverna’s well-stocked bar; Slow-roasted lamb; Breezy interiors; Refresh with a cocktail; Colourful food fusions; The beachside restaurant’s gorgeous façade.