PORT OF CALL

Vic­to­ria Lau­rie dis­cov­ers a quiet cor­ner away from the buzzing streets of Fre­man­tle

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.

Check­list

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.

Pic­ture: Colin Murty

His­tory and com­fort: Es­sex Restau­rant of­fers el­e­gant din­ing inside a 115-year-old lime­stone cot­tage

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