TABLES HIGHER SCALE
There’s more to Fremantle’s Red Herring than a seafood platter, discovers Victoria Laurie
IT’S early on Friday night and the Red Herring is already buzzing. Restaurant patrons usually turn up early, our waiter cheerfully informs us, because they like standing on the outside deck at sunset, looking for shoals of fish in the clear, shallow water that gently slaps beneath the floorboards.
The place started out as an oyster farm in 1921, jutting into the Swan River with crates full of oysters suspended in the water. Then for several decades it operated as the Oyster Beds restaurant until, from 1997, new owners renamed it and refurbished it into an elegant, brightly lit glass pavilion over the water.
When four of us meet in the convenient riverside car park, the air has the salty tang of fresh oysters and the view across the water is splendid: there’s a turn-of-the-century cricket pavilion surrounded by condos owned by Fremantle’s nouveaux riches. Metres away from us, fishing boats and family cruisers languidly criss-cross between the blue and red channel lights. In a moment they’ll turn a bend, pass the wharves and reach the sea.
You could drop a line over the veranda balustrade where our party is seated, except it’s winter and the restaurant drops clear plastic blinds to keep out the sea breeze. Perhaps it’s the cheerful red splash of colour on the entrance wall, but the Red Herring has a warmth and panache about it from first encounter.
A young waiter pours iced water into our glasses and hands out menus with a welcoming flourish. We settle back to watch Brendon, the Japantrained grill chef, searing cuttlefish skewers and crab cakes behind an island bar a few metres away.
The restaurant is almost full and the noise level is high: polished floorboards and lots of glass look good but don’t make for great acoustics. A round of martinis ($15 each) has the effect of numbing any mild irritation, and the waiter has solicitously checked whether we want a base of Bombay or Gordon’s gin.
That seafood predominates on the menu (by head chef James Weston) suits a party of four I’ll nickname Fish Boy, Oyster Lover, Sushi Freak and Anything Seafood. Fish Boy’s entree arrives first, a generous barbecue seafood tasting plate ($19.50) featuring local garfish with a pleasing smoked taste, prawns and fish slivers, two cuttlefish skewers, a bowl of Japanese rice and a small, crisp salad with bean shoots and ginger. It’s the best value dish of the night.
Brendon, the grill chef cum sushi maker, is clearly working overtime. The sushi and sashimi entree ($18.50) ordered by Sushi Freak (me) is faultless, with plump salmon slices perkily resting against a palisade of expertly sliced cucumber. Little taste sensations impress, such as the ribbons of pale pink ginger that don’t resemble the overpickled, over-coloured ginger served by some restaurants. (It’s brought in from Adelaide because it’s not too tart, Brendon tells me later over a cooling grill.)
The dozen natural oysters (at $3 a shell) get high praise from Oyster Lover for arriving on a bed of crushed ice, not salt. But her discerning palate tells her they are not as fresh as they should be, which is surprising in a place that makes a big play of its oysters being freshly shucked and presented in six ways.
Anything Seafood judges his homemade braised lamb gnocchi entree ($18) as too soft and doughy, even though I taste-test and approve of the sinewy meat and tomato and vegetable sauce that goes with it. We tell him it serves him right for not sticking to the seafood, as we share an excellent fifth entree of salt-and-pepper squid ($18) by dunking the crispy squid pieces in a little pot of chilli jam (tomato, onion, capsicum and chilli).
None of us is a big drinker, but after downing two bottles of Chestnut Grove Verdelho from Manjimup in the state’s southwest ($35; $8 a glass) we get giggly thinking about the impact on diners of the overpowering pong from ‘‘ New Zealand love boats’’ at the nearby Fremantle port. The ammonia smell from decks full of nervous sheep can waft on a summer breeze, so we decide Red Herring patrons may want to check wind direction and the shipping news before booking a veranda table.
Our mains arrive: for Fish Boy, a generous serve of whole New Zealand flounder with lemon caper sauce, kumara chips and red onion wedges ($37). Mine is chargrilled fresh Rottnest Island crayfish with a tangy lemon-butter sauce, cos lettuce salad and mashed potatoes. The meat proves hard to extract from the half shell and is curiously bitter where the grilling process has seared the edges of the delicate white flesh. Unless you are a giant eater, a half serve ($32; $55 whole) is quite enough.
Oyster Lover’s roasted Atlantic salmon fillet, with beetroot and steamed asparagus and salsa verde ($34), is perfectly balanced in taste, although the creme fraiche on top is unnecessary. And Anything Seafood is pleased with his grilled fresh snapper, served with scallion and parmesan mash, steamed green beans and saffron beurre blanc ($47.50).
The most economical way for a group to get its sugar fix is the sweets tasting plate to share ($24.50), with little sample serves of steamed ginger pudding, baked white chocolate cheesecake and pecan and caramel tartlet, plus ice cream varieties. It is all too sweet and cloying for my taste but I spoon-fight Fish Boy for mouthfuls of my favourite, a warm poached pear with cinnamon-scented ricotta.
We sit around feeling sated and no one tries to hurry us along, even though a second shift of patrons could easily be squeezed in, if only at the grill-sushi bar. The restaurant rates points on another score: when book- ing, I explained that one of our party was in a wheelchair and needed easy access to the table. No problem, they said, and discreetly withdrew a chair from the table when we arrived. And a gently angled ramp built into the stylish entrance makes it easy for all of us to roll out. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
The Red Herring 26 Riverside Rd, East Fremantle. (08) 9339 1611; www.redherring.com.au. Open: Daily, lunch from noon to 3pm, dinner from 6pm to 10pm. Cost: About $125 for two for three courses and wine. Reasons to return: Reliably high standard of food; efficient service; wonderful outlook.
Fish for compliments: A great view and a Japanese twist in the cooking enhance Red Herring’s appeal