346 New South Head Road Double Bay, New South Wales 2028
"Perfect" is a word I avoid in restaurant reviews, along with tasty, moist, sinful, delish, and orgasmic. So this piece of hapuka I am looking at is hard to describe.
The skin has been crisped and burnished into something as crunchy as crackling. Beneath it, the flesh has almost gelled into lustrous lobes that taste clean, sweet and pure. It sits submerged in a bubble bath of light, sudsy Alsatian Riesling foam, all fruity acidity. Mountain pepper leaves anchor it back to land, and an inspired accompaniment of softly torn blond chunks of paperbark-wrapped celeriac adds a bush campfire smokiness. It is … transcendental.
The fact that it is so good is no accident. After years sourcing and cooking fish at Pier Rose Bay and the inaugural Fish Face in Darlinghurst, and now at his new restaurant and casual diner in Double Bay, Steve Hodges runs the most uncompromising fish restaurant in Australia.
The fish come in whole, are immediately scaled and gutted - without the use of water, crucially - and stored in a specially designed static (no air movement) fridge. Cooking is done skin-side down, using specially commissioned fish weights that create a vacuum underneath that allows the skin to crisp without the protein setting. Along with all this rigour is another huge asset: Josh Niland, a precociously talented emerging young chef. He first launched the casual front area (Fish Face Double Bay) for Hodges, with its counters and stools, daily fish specials, trademark sushi bar, and fish and chips. His reward was to become chef of the second, much delayed, larger space behind, known as Fish Face Dining. Here, Niland works a cooler, calmer kitchen, looking out to a somewhat bare, light, white room of clothed tables and atrium ceiling.
The menu is small and precise, pared back to five entrees, five mains and five desserts. No bread is offered, and no appetiser. Instead, it's straight into an entree of raw john dory ($26), a delicate bundle dressed with white pomelo and soy, a touch of house-dried flathead roe and some almost aggressive (in a good way) herbs and sea succulents to again, bring it back to earth. What sounds as if it will be more of a wow-look-at-me dish of lobster, white nectarine and oscietra caviar ($39) is less assertive, but just as nuanced.
There are meat options - pigeon, duck and veal - but given the place is called Fish Face and not Veal Head, the choice is easy. Two fleshy, crisp-skinned, lightly cooked fillets of mahi mahi ($46) are almost as good as the hapuka, given a hefty push by meltingly soft roast onion, mouth-popping sago pearls and an intense onion and native thyme jus. The interplay between fish and accompaniments shows a real understanding of the integral nature of each fish. There's even a proper hold-in-your-hands wine list with a nicely judged selection of lighter reds and aromatic whites, including a delicate, minerally 2013 Howard Park chardonnay ($53).
A nutmeg-scented custard tart ($19) cooling on the pass is tempting, but a golden fondant of Granny Smith apple with a caramelised brick of brioche and white beer ice cream ($19) is a glory hallelujah dish in its own right.
Hodges and Niland have effectively recreated Fish Face Darlinghurst (currently closed) in the front of their Double Bay digs, with more civilised dining and sensitive cooking at the back.
Service is still finding its feet, and the expensive exhaust system is yet to prove its worth, but this is as good as eating fish in Sydney gets. Not perfect, mind. Just as good as it gets.
Best bit: The fish.
Worst bit: Confusing roles of front and back restaurants.
Go-to dish: Hapuka, paperbark roast celeriac, native pepper $46.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.