With its golden sand beaches, lapped by sapphire blue ocean, the South Coast is becoming a dining destination. This stretch of coast from the Victorian border north to Shoalhaven is dotted with sleepy seaside towns and fishing ports, beyond which is green rolling farmland, historic towns and hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest and National Park.
The summer playground for Australia's southern capitals: Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne people come for the fishing, beaches, boating and now, the food.
The rolling swell crashes into the headland at Mollymook turning the turquoise waters white. This beachside town is the place where countless Australians spent their summer holidays and where retirees walk the golden sands. Just to the south is the fishing port of Ulladulla where fish are caught along the coast and further out to sea.
It's no wonder that English celebrity chef Rick Stein made this town home to his antipodean restaurant, Rick Stein at Bannisters luxury hotel. The dining room overlooks the ocean and is set out with white linen on tables and fabric covered chairs. The tacit mantra here is best quality seafood served simply, with oysters from four South Coast locations to sashimi of marlin, swordfish, salmon and snapper. Stein's chefs might tart it up a bit with a madras fish curry or nod to Old Blighty with a fish pie: morsels of snapper, salmon, trevalla, scallops and mushrooms in a creamy veloute with gratinated cheese and breadcrumb crust. Book ahead as it's always busy. bannisters.com.au
Just to the north on the Princes Highway is the historic town of Milton. On the road out to the showgrounds is St Isidore. You get an idea of what's on the menu when you stroll the immaculately tended vegetable garden and chook yards overlooking a dam and Pigeon House mountain in the distance.
Depending on the time of year up to 70 per cent of your meal may be sourced from the garden, the rest coming from the farms and fishing boats nearby. Chef Alex Delly, who made his way here from Melbourne's Circa and Ezard via Bannisters, lets the produce speak for itself sending out delicious little plates such as zucchini flowers with whipped feta, spinach and baby leek or something more substantial such as "grilled half-a-chook" which is served with charred savoy cabbage and sherry sauce. stisidore.com.au
On a hill above Narooma Harbour is this unassuming 1970s motel. The dining room, however, has a modern nautical theme with polished wood surfaces and views across the water. The restaurant is called the Whale. Expect local oysters, au naturel or cooked with Cafe de Paris butter, and good seafood such as local blue swimmer crab with handmade fettuccine. whalemotorinn.com
In the little town of Moruya, with its old wooden houses with jacarandas in the back gardens, is the River. It's modern Australian dining to a very high standard served in a room and deck overlooking the river. Chef Peter Compton, again formerly of Melbourne's Circa, cooks food with ingredients that reflects his new home region and his artful aesthetics. Order the Tuross Sydney rock oysters, then try the tuna, landed at Bermagui, served raw and cubed in a sauce redolent of wasabi with finely chopped shallots and with some hot crab beignets on the side. therivermoruya.com.au
Further south there is the coastal road that meanders through the spotted gum forest and crosses rivers and lagoons on single-lane wooden bridges. Just outside of Bermagui is Drystone Restaurant at Mimosa Wines. The location is stunning, the Daryl Jackson-designed timber and adobe cellar door and dining room is perched over the vineyard with views of the surrounding bush to Mumbulla, the mountain sacred to the Yuin Aboriginal people. The dining is casual, dishes such as scallops in prosciutto served on bare table tops made of polished slabs of timber. mimosawines.com.au
Down in Merimbula, by a busy intersection with glimpses out to sea, is Zanzibar Cafe. The room is an odd banana shape but the modern fittings and low-slung chairs are comfortable. Chef Huw Jones picked up two chefs hats at this year's The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide for his artfully plated, seasonal and local degustation-only menu. zanzibarmerimbula.com.au
Come here to find some of the best oysters in Australia. Home to the Sydney rock oyster the growers have dubbed this part of the world Australia's Oyster Coast. The website australiasoystercoast.com lists many of the growers in the area and sends you down dirt tracks to the rustic sheds on the water where you meet the growers and buy incredibly fresh and good value oysters. Buy a hessian sack of oysters, a shucker if you don't own one, and sit by the beach or river.
For a plate of oysters and a hipster brew, swing by the Ulladulla Oyster Bar. ulladullaoysterbar.com.au Ensconced in a late-20th-century, outdoor shopping arcade this is a casual joint to enjoy the sea bounty. The Bermagui Oyster Room has a lovely casual nautical feel with blonde wood, oysters from around the region and four types of sparkling by the glass. facebook.com/bermaguioysterroom. If you want to try different oysters from along the Pambula River jump on board Captain Sponge's oversized punt and join him on a Magical Oyster Tour. magicaloystertours.com.au
Farm Gate and Provisions
The fish along the coast is flipping fresh and available in roadside fish stalls and directly from the fishermen's cooperatives. Try Lucky's Seafood, supplier to Rick Stein, or the Fisherman's Wharf in Ulladulla; Narooma Bridge Seafoods, with the lobster boat moored 10 metres from the counter, in Narooma; Bermagui Fishermen's Co-op; and Merimbula Fresh Seafood in Alice Street, Merimbula.
The South Coast is also known for its cheese. While historic Tilba Tilba is home to the famous ABC Cheese Factory .southcoastcheese.com.au further to the north is the Bodalla Cheese Factory. You can watch the small crew pasteurise milk and make small batches of cheese. Wander into the Dairy Shed next door, with its 1950s retro fitout, and taste the cheese. You can taste the quality of the milk in the cheddar style cheese, some of which has been smoked over eucalyptus. Stay for a light meal or try a glass of icy unhomogenised milk for just $1.
If you're in Moruya on a Tuesday afternoon make sure you check out the market with brilliant veg, stonefruit, meat and seafood producers. sagefarmersmarket.org.au Also selling their bread here is Honorbread, excellent sourdough bakers who have only recently opened their hole in the wall bakery at 8 Bunga St, Bermagui, Bermagui.
There is glamping at its best at Tanja Lagoon. Dodge the kangaroos, watch the sunset on Middle Lagoon, crack open a bottle of local red and cook yourself a steak (provided) on the barbecue and some veg from the garden and bed down on fine linen in a proper bed in a tent under the stars. tanjalagooncamp.com.au.
The motel style rooms of the Bodalla Dairy Shed are perfunctory but the view across the paddocks and the sound of the frogs are beautiful. Wake up and have breakfast in the 1950s style cafe next door. bodalladairyshed.com.au
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Richard Cornish travelled as a guest of Destination New South Wales