A TASMAN CATCH
Matthew Denholm enjoys an island taste of the southern seas
SEAFOOD doesn’t come any fresher than this. Order oysters at the Mussel Boys, in Taranna on the Tasman Peninsula, southeast of Hobart, and a staff member pops down to the waters of Norfolk Bay a few metres below to prise them from their beds.
It’s a practice that exemplifies the approach of chef Eloise Baker, who focuses on a fresh and local philosophy.
To fully appreciate Baker’s dedication to this foodie mantra, my fellow escapee, Jen, and I set aside the best part of an afternoon, find a table in the sun with a view of the tranquil bay and order the Seven Natural Wonders of the Tasman Peninsula ($74 a person). We are all set to spend the next couple of hours ‘‘ lazing and grazing’’, as Baker puts it, on the best produce this intriguing and dramatically beautiful corner of the world has to offer.
The first of our seven indulgences is those neighbourhood oysters. I’m not generally a fan of confusing the fresh taste of raw oysters with anything other than a drop of lemon, so I cast a sceptical eye over the three offerings: with tomato, Tabasco and vodka; smoked salmon and creme fraiche; and salt and Szechwan pepper.
To my surprise, all three are superb. The salt and Szechwan, which has perhaps the strongest of the flavours, is the biggest revelation. Somehow Baker has managed to coat an oyster in an explosive dust of spices and still persuade the jewel inside to retain its flavour. I toy with the idea of ordering a half dozen more right away. However, sobered by another glance at the six ‘‘ natural wonders’’ to come, I stay on the course Baker has set for us.
By now I would normally have told you about the wine we’d chosen. Only we haven’t been able to secure it. Our first choice is unavailable and, rather than hang around and chat about other suitable options, the waitress has abandoned us and returns only when our oysters are ready. Fortunately, this proves to be the only lapse in service this afternoon.
Somehow we recover from the obscenity of eating our oysters without the excellent Yaxley Estate Pinot Gris ($34) that eventually arrives. The vineyard is in Copping, a short drive north up the Arthur Highway, allowing us to remain in theme with this sampling of peninsula wonders.
The next of these arrives promptly: mussels with asparagus sauteed in brown butter, and sage and pumpkin ravioli topped with aged parmesan.
The ravioli is a little stodgy and not exactly bulging with pumpkin. However, the mussels and their sauce more than compensate. I marvel that butter and sage alone can produce such sensational flavour.
Two courses under our belts and five to go: it’s time to rest the tastebuds and savour our surroundings. Autumn sunshine, weak but still warming, streams through the large windows offering pleasant views. The bay is like so many in this neck of the woods, simply stunning, with wooded hills gently sloping to the shore. There’s less to write home about in the plain, timbered restaurant interior, apart from the photographs of Tasmanian beauty spots that adorn the walls. This is not a designer diner, but then Jen and I are not here for the decor.
We are here, however, for the grilled Pirates Bay octopus with spinach and fetta pie and lemon aioli. The octopus is a little chewy but, once again, Baker’s remarkable flavours are impossible to fault, as is the perfectly cooked pastry accompaniment.
The combination of seafood and crust continues with the next course: salmon, baked in pastry with smoked oyster pate on lemon-roasted sweet potato and citrus butter. I had harboured fears it would be a little rich, but this proves unfounded. Everything is perfect, the balance of flavours, the crisp pastry and the salmon, which is cooked just right.
It is about this point I feel the need to adjust my belt buckle. Not that I’m wavering: there is much yet to come that promises to be too good to back out. Like any marathon, the secret is in properly pacing oneself. Another rest, as the Yaxley Estate cleanses our palates and aids digestion. Our waitress also helpfully liaises with Baker, allowing us to time our courses.
We’ve reached course five and I’m at belt notch two as the menu leaves the ocean and makes for the farm gate, starting with Rannoch Farm quail, blue cheese, walnut and apple salad and red wine vinaigrette.
I must admit to avoiding quail usually, on the simple logic a bird that small can’t possibly stack up against its larger cousins in the eating stakes. While these quails are plump, it is once again the combination of flavours and textures that wins out. By now I’m a Baker fan, regardless of what the final two courses have to offer. This course is yet another well conceived and brilliantly executed use of local produce.
The depth and intelligence of the menu is astounding, not only because of the restaurant’s distance from the regular turnover of a city clientele, but because of Baker’s youth. She was 26 when she established the Mussel Boys, three years ago.
My faith is reinforced in course six: venison from Doo Town (yes, there is such a place) with a roast beetroot, roast garlic and goats cheese tart and a pinot noir native pepper syrup.
If I had come here just to tackle this last dish it would have been worth the drive from Hobart. The meat is tender and the combinations inspired.
I can barely move but I’m happy. So happy I can handle the bad news: the promised seven wonders have become six. Baker is unable to provide a thoroughly local dessert (due to the exhausted supply of raspberries, I later discover).
I’m not sure I could eat a seventh wonder, wherever it hails from. But the marathon must be completed, having come this far, and we agree to depart from the tasting list and top off our afternoon of indulgence with a selection from the main menu. I opt for the bitey Pyengana aged cheddar, from Tasmania’s northeast, with quince paste, pear and crackers. Jen’s more expansive constitution allows her to manage a chocolate and chilli tart with vanilla ice cream and chocolate cream sauce. It is just the right combination of chilli zing and cholesterol comfort, she tells me.
At the Mussel Boys, wonders never cease. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
The Mussel Boys 5927 Arthur Highway, Taranna, Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania; (03) 6250 3088. Open: In winter, Wednesday, from 5pm; Thursday-Sunday, lunch from noon and dinner from 5pm. Cost: Three-course lunch for two with wine, about $115-$145; slightly more for dinner. Reason to return: To indulge again in the Seven Natural Wonders of the Tasman Peninsula (if you’re coming for dinner, this tasting menu must be ordered before 8pm), and for chef Eloise Baker’s brilliantly conceived and well-executed combinations of flavours, achieved with the freshest local ingredients.
In her domain: The Mussel Boys chef Eloise Baker, main picture; mussels, in the pan and on the plate, left