TABLES TOP SECRET
David Bentley tries flavours of the sea with a French touch in a hidden corner of Brisbane
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
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.
Set piece: Preparing for the lunchtime rush at Seasalt@Armstrongs