PORT OF CALL
Victoria Laurie discovers a quiet corner away from the buzzing streets of Fremantle
THE West Australian port city of Fremantle on a Saturday night is raucous. Muscled young dudes stroll along the famed cappuccino strip, comparing tattoos or new mobile phones and pretending not to leer at girls tottering past in high heels. Walking into the Essex Restaurant is a staid experience by comparison, all dimmed lights, Johnny Farnham mood music and well-groomed middle-aged diners. Perhaps it was this demographic that judged it most popular restaurant by public vote in the state’s 2007 Restaurant and Catering Industry Awards.
In Essex Street, just off the cappuccino strip, the Essex has history and comfort on its side. So discreet is the restaurant sign that it’s only when you walk inside the 115-year-old limestone cottage that you realise it has been converted into an elegant suite of carpeted dining rooms.
A sign of age, perhaps, but our threesome — me, my partner and an old friend from Alice Springs — approves of the well-padded chairs and flattering lighting. With an efficient flick of linen napkins into our laps, the waitress signals that fine dining here is also about attentive service. Water tumblers are filled and orders promptly taken. The award-winning wine list appears; it’s an impressive array, predominantly of West and South Australian wines. Our bottle of Chestnut Grove Verdelho ($32) appears shortly before the entrees.
Our guest declares her full-flavoured tomato and crabmeat gazpacho ($12) has a satisfying tang of paprika, and the creme fraiche and cucumber float attractively in the orange-red soup.
Tasting plates are often a quick way to assess a restaurant’s culinary style. The Essex Plate ($21) hints at an ambitious sweep across myriad traditions, from Asian to Aussie modern. There’s a slice of braised pork belly with harissa that is sweet and crisp on the outside but its meat chewy and a little dry. The barbecued scallop on goat’s cheese with pesto and the serrated twist of salt and pepper squid are fine but unremarkable. More memorable is the slender tartlet of cherry tomato and camembert, golden brown on top, moist and full of flavour.
The approach to food here clearly aims at versatility. There’s a slight sense, however, that the kitchen tries to cover too many bases. Fewer dishes (there are about 30 choices) might allow for more imaginative offerings. Yet it must be said that former Essex chef Mark Spencer (who is filling in for head chef Noel Friend on the night we visit, but handed over the kitchen last May) earned the Essex several RCIA Gold Plate and American Express awards over a decade.
My superb entree gives an inkling of the reason: it’s a twice-baked Kervella goat cheese souffle ($20.50) that sits on the plate in a ring of nutty pesto. Firm and flavoursome, the souffle does credit to the wonderful biodynamic product that cheesemaker Gabrielle Kervella pioneered on her WA farm. She is about to end her cheese-making career, so this dish feels like a fitting tribute.
For mains, I’ve opted for West Australian crayfish, having recently savoured the delicate flavours of freshwater crayfish, or marron, in the state’s southwest. Fresh or saltwater, crusta- ceans are rather pricey; my moderatesized whole cray is $49.50.
Our waitress asks if I’d prefer it thermidor style, served with mornay sauce or with truffle butter. I choose the last-mentioned as the least obtrusive option. In New Zealand, with a group of Japanese visitors, I once watched in horror as a gooey blanket of cheese sauce was poured over our grilled lobster. We agreed it was like adding curry powder to tuna sashimi.
My fish-loving partner’s unusual choice of meat for his main course is well rewarded. The Essex’s signature dish is Fillet Gabrielle ($37.50): a grilled fillet of Harvey beef (from the lush paddocks of the state’s southwest) filled with local scallops and served with a red wine demi-glace and potato mash to mop it up. It comes mediumrare as requested and makes for hearty eating.
The Alice Springs visitor loves her Tasmanian salmon fillet, served with pebble-sized, spiced Israeli couscous, sun-dried tomato tapenade and kaffir lime butter sauce (entree $21; main $37). The pink flesh is perfectly cooked.
But to return to my crayfish: our waitress reveals she is the ex-wife of a cray fisherman in the Abrolhos Islands, source of some of Australia’s best crayfish. This means she has eaten crays so fresh they have practically crawled on to the plate.
She says her preference is to eat them straight — no sauce, not even butter — so she looks sceptical when I tell her how well the truffle butter works with the delicate meat. It’s something to do with the taste of sea salt mingling with the earthy aroma of the state’s celebrated black truffles. A Greek salad of tomatoes, cucumber, fetta cheese and oregano ($12.50) is rather ordinary, with red onion hewn into thick slices. And the dessert tasting plate ($22.50) is also uninspired: sticky date pudding, lemon tart and a small parfait glass of indeterminate contents.
The Essex aims wide and while there are some glitches, there are memorable dishes. The restaurant is eager to please and the fact that it is regularly booked out is a good indication that it satisfies its loyal clientele. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
The Essex Restaurant 20 Essex St, Fremantle, Western Australia. (08) 9335 5725; www.essexrestaurant.com.au. Open: Seven nights, 6pm-10pm; lunch Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays from noon. Cost: About $90 a head for two courses, a shared dessert plate, coffee and a bottle of wine. Drink: Great local wine list. Reason to return: To try the seafood feast of fish, chilli mussels, blue manna crab, prawns and scallop cake. But if you include crayfish, it’s $74 a head.
History and comfort: Essex Restaurant offers elegant dining inside a 115-year-old limestone cottage