I'm always curious to see whether those who are creative in the good times are just as creative when the going gets tough. Josh Niland, of sustainable whole fish restaurant Saint Peter, chose the high road to survival through lockdown with a full-on take-home menu from his nearby Fish Butchery. Now he has done a brave (or foolhardy) relaunch of his Saint Peter restaurant.
I say brave (and foolhardy) because he has reduced the capacity of the restaurant from 34 to 20 by running 12 metres of broad, high Carrara marble counter right down the middle. Diners one side, chefs on the other.
It's crazy but it works, maximising the small, narrow sandstone-and-brick space to advantage. It's also consistent with Niland's core beliefs of transparency, openness and education. And besides, everyone knows the best place to sit is up at the bar.
So now you can see the good, dense, house-made emmer wheat bread being sliced to order. You can watch the chefs opening oysters, still the first port of call at Saint Peter.
You can listen in as Niland pauses to mention that his Tasmanian oysters are stored at considerably cooler temperatures than Pacifics, reflecting the temperature of their respective waters.
It's a masterclass with dinner, as another chef assembles the opening snacks for each diner – the now-perfected (less oily) fish eye crisps, a light, creamy oyster emulsion, 'nduja paste made with striped marlin, and Pepe Saya yoghurt cultured butter with caraway seeds.
Niland's reference points are often classic French, drawn from techniques more commonly associated with meat. He forms a traditional pâté en croute ($24) with a non-traditional farce of coral trout, studded with three plugs of nori-wrapped meat from the head of a kingfish, encased in an excellent hot water pastry that uses Murray cod fat rather than butter or lard. Amazingly, it tastes more meaty than fishy, punched up with a wonderfully pungent VB mustard.
Big, fleshy Ballina pipis ($32) form a mermaid's bangle, whipped off the charcoal grill at the merest whisper of the shells opening, and doused in a full-bodied yellowfin and native juniper stock. You're left with a bowlful of soft, slippery cuttlefish "noodles" in broth that references a sea-sweet Vietnamese pho noodle.
Dinner is when the dry-aged and whole-fish approach is rammed home, while lunches are more casual and snacky, with coral trout sandwiches and salt-and-vinegar fish heads.
Just as a steak joint will solemnly present its prime rib of beef on the bone to tempt you, so Niland steps forward, cradling a 700 gram 20-day dry-aged bigeye tuna rib-eye, trimmed bones protruding ($148).
Rock flathead, caught by Bruce Collis at Victoria's Corner Inlet and grilled over coals, comes dissected into loin, belly, collar, head and tail, laid out like a biology experiment over a rich, dark, livery sauce Diane ($52).
The skin is crisp, the meat just sings, and it's even meaty enough for restaurant manager Ronnie Gorman to suggest a fresh, vibrant 2018 Lyons Will gamay from the Macedon Ranges ($86).
Surgically butterflied and boned, King George whiting ($58) has been grilled only on the skin side and sent out with a puddle of sauce beurre blanc, loaded with sudachi citrus, finger lime and tapioca for snap, crackle and pop. So simple, so good.
Hand-cut fries ($10/$16) get fish-salt rather than chicken, and roasted winter vegetables ($10/$16) are sweetly caramelised but still sharply distinct.
You can't not order the textbook, just-set, jiggly Meyer lemon tart ($20), with the built-in bonus of watching the chef heat the knife with a blowtorch before cutting each slice. The kitchen prides itself on the fineness of the crust, but a slightly thicker, less brittle pastry wouldn't hurt.
It's a privilege, as a diner, to witness the multiple small processes and tiny details of a kitchen operating at this obsessive, boundary-pushing level. As a restaurant, Saint Peter is more communicative, conceptual, polished and rewarding than it has ever been. Here's to the brave. And the foolhardy.
Address 362 Oxford Street, Paddington, 02 8937 2530, saintpeter.com.au
Open Dinner Wed-Sat 5.30pm-late; lunch Thu-Sat noon-2pm
Dining window Two hours
Protocols Tracking details taken; hand sanitiser at entrance
Vegetarian That would be difficult; this is a fish restaurant
Drinks Ronnie Gorman's clever, lively list has Australian craft beers, spirits and liqueurs and an impressive, naturalish wine list running to the 2010 Rockford Basket Press shiraz, and 2013 Giaconda chardonnay.
Cost $220 for two plus drinks at dinner, cheaper at lunch
Score Scoring is paused while the industry gets back on its feet.