TA­BLES TOP SE­CRET

David Bent­ley tries flavours of the sea with a French touch in a hid­den cor­ner of Bris­bane

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

CHEF Rus­sell Arm­strong’s restau­rant Seasalt@Arm­strongs is tucked away in the bou­tique Inch­colm Ho­tel on Wick­ham Ter­race, Bris­bane’s in­ner-city precinct of med­i­cal spe­cial­ists.

With vir­tu­ally no pass­ing trade, Arm­strong re­lies partly on in-house guests, partly on func­tions, partly on a loyal fol­low­ing of food afi­ciona­dos gath­ered dur­ing the past few decades.

Against all odds, the lo­ca­tion works well. Be­ing voted best chef-owner in the 2005 and 2006 Queens­land Restau­rant and Cater­ing Awards has helped. Busi­ness­men and women, and ro­man­tic cou­ples, also have taken to the place.

Mrs B phones for a 7.30pm book­ing but set­tles for a ta­ble at 8pm. The place is hum­ming when we ar­rive and we or­der min­eral wa­ter while con­tem­plat­ing the menu and wine list.

It’s an easy­go­ing room. Ser­vice is friendly but not overly so. The aquar­ium com­plete with tiny fight­ing fish that dec­o­rates each ta­ble is a cer­tain con­ver­sa­tion starter.

Naive art­work hangs on the walls. Tan­ta­lis­ing aro­mas is­sue from the open kitchen door as we scru­ti­nise the thought­ful wine list, which in­cludes a few French whites and one sticky, along with a se­lec­tion of af­ford­able Aus­tralian wines. Se­ri­ous wine buffs have the op­tion of choos­ing from a re­serve wine list.

The fare is ob­vi­ously in­spired by French cook­ery; Arm­strong de­scribes it as mod­ern Aus­tralian. Al­ways a per­fec­tion­ist, his proven­der has evolved and be­come more as­sured with time.

As you’d ex­pect from a restau­rant named Seasalt, the menu in­cludes more than a smat­ter­ing of seafood but also lists a se­lec­tion of meat and poul­try dishes. Mrs B opens with an en­tree of scal­lops ($21). The shell­fish is wrapped in crisped pancetta and rest on a bed of creamed cele­riac. Green ap­ple and wal­nut salad of­fers a re­fresh­ing con­trast, abet­ted by a glass of 2007 Galli Es­tate Pinot Gri­gio from Sun­bury in Vic­to­ria ($9.50).

My seafood an­tipasto ($21.50) com­prises four be­guil­ing mouth­fuls. Salmon wrapped in cu­cum­ber and topped with trout caviar is the hit. Close be­hind is a morsel of cur­ried bar­ra­mundi in pas­try, rem­i­nis­cent of a souped-up samosa. There’s smoked salmon mousse on brioche with salmon roe and fi­nally a pissal­adiere with white an­chovy and fetta, which is de­li­cious, if slightly over­pow­er­ing in the con­text of the other flavours in the quar­tet. Again, pinot gri­gio is our wine of choice.

Of Arm­strong, there is no sign. In his ab­sence, cook­ing chores are over­seen by Ben Wood­ward, a tal­ented young chef who, hav­ing spent the past four years un­der the mas­ter’s tute­lage, knows the ropes. Ap­par­ently, Arm­strong has taken the night off to be with his ill child. He is also re­vamp­ing Arm­strong’s@Brook­wa­ter, the restau­rant he runs at Brook­wa­ter Golf Club, be­tween Ipswich and Bris­bane, jug­gling his and Seasalt.

Much of Arm­strong’s ca­reer has been de­voted to awak­en­ing restau­rant pa­trons to the joy of food, a cru­sade that dates from the early 1980s when

time

be­tween

there he worked at the Con­naught Ho­tel and Le Gavroche in Lon­don, and at Les Fr­eres Trois­gros in Roanne, France, re­turn­ing to Bris­bane in 1984.

With fel­low chef David Pugh, he opened Le Fi­garo in Red Hill. Arm­strong went on to open Ta­bles of Toowong, re­main­ing there un­til the mid-1990s, emerg­ing with a tow­er­ing rep­u­ta­tion but lit­tle else to show for years of ded­i­cated toil.

It’s eight years since Arm­strong opened his epony­mous restau­rant at the Inch­colm Ho­tel; in 2004 the restau­rant changed its name to Seasalt@Arm­strongs. Through the years the fa­mously fiery chef has mel­lowed, though with no slack­en­ing of culi­nary zeal.

Cer­tainly Mrs B’s main course of feuil­lete of monk­fish and lob­ster with creamed leek, fen­nel and chive lob­ster broth ($29.50) of­fers a fra­grant ex­plo­ration of com­ple­men­tary tex­tures and flavours, as­sisted by a glass of 2006 Austins Chardon­nay from Gee­long ($10.50). The feuil­lete, a crisp puff pas­try at the side of the plate, is per­fect with the broth, which is not so much a broth as a light creamy bisque sauce cal­cu­lated to en­hance the monk­fish and crus­tacean.

I have or­dered a main course of pail­lard of milk-fed veal ($29.50), which refers to a dish made fa­mous by 19th-cen­tury Parisian restau­ra­teur Pail­lard for whom veal was a spe­cialty. The term de­scribes a method of cut­ting or flat­ten­ing veal into thin slices. With wood mush­room, braised veal shank and cep cream sauce, this dish tastes fab­u­lous by any name.

The slow-braised veal shanks lend earth­i­ness and a splash of madeira con­trib­utes a nutty, mel­low note. A glass of 2006 Car­rick Pinot Noir from Cen­tral Otago ($14) works well amid th­ese rich flavours.

For dessert, we share a plate of four flavours ($25). This is a fine idea in the­ory but frus­trat­ing in re­al­ity be­cause in­di­vid­ual serv­ings are too small for us to fully savour their im­pact.

Crepes suzette, pre­pared in the tra­di­tional way with caramelised cit­rus sauce and Grand Marnier, is the show stop­per. Lemon yo­ghurt cake with honey-baked quince salsa and mas­car­pone mousse is ex­cel­lent but, again, war­rants a full help­ing.

Ba­nana and fruit pud­ding with cit­rus curd and choco­late mousse taste com­fort­ing in a round-the-fire sort of way, but the fi­nal of­fer­ing, a hazel­nut and choco­late tart with ge­lato and orange cus­tard, sim­ply doesn’t work in minia­ture.

A por­tion of triple-cream brie ($14) from France, served with quince paste and green ap­ple and washed down with a glass of 2004 Paul Jaboulet Aine de Beaumes de Venise ($14) com­pletes the meal. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for. Seasalt@Arm­strongs 73 Wick­ham Tce, Spring Hill, Bris­bane. (07) 3832 4566; www.arm­strongsrestau­rant.com.au. Open: Break­fast seven days; lunch Mon­day to Fri­day; din­ner Mon­day to Satur­day. Cost: $80-$95 for three cour­ses in­clud­ing side dish and cheese plate. Drink: Com­pact but in­tel­li­gent wine list: $9.50-$14 a glass, $31-$92 a bot­tle. Re­serve wine list on re­quest. Rea­son to re­turn: Imag­i­na­tive and ac­ces­si­ble fare from a Bris­bane leg­end, at­ten­tive ser­vice and fre­quent menu changes.

Pic­ture: Pa­trick Hamil­ton

Set piece: Pre­par­ing for the lunchtime rush at Seasalt@Arm­strongs

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