On a sunny Port Stephens day, pelicans hang around the fish-cleaning stations by the pier, patiently waiting for their dinner to be delivered. Like them, I'm here for the fish.
Over a 45-year career and countless cookbooks, TV programs and famous British restaurants, the Rick Stein name is so synonymous with fresh fish and seafood, it should be weighed and scaled.
In 2018, Stein doubled down on his Australian holdings with business partner Peter Cosgrove, opening at Bannisters Port Stephens resort hotel nine years after their vastly successful Mollymook venture south of Sydney.
I'd never risen to the bait before, but these days, a road trip is the only sort of trip that makes sense – and a good meal makes the best destination.
For a hotel dining room, the big, bold, noisy space is a fun place to be, with its outdoor terrace, large central bar and big, cosy booths. Staff are welcoming and local, and my table is lucky to have the elegant services of Thomas Groeneveld, last seen at Sepia and Icebergs.
At one end, executive chef Mitchell Turner and head chef Chris Turton are hard at work in what is clearly a professionally run kitchen, theatrically stage-lit under white orb lanterns.
Cap'n Rick himself may not be here but dining on the eclectic menu is like binge-watching his TV shows. One minute you're in Asia, the next, the Middle East, India, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Thailand, Mexico or Japan.
The seafood is far more local, as it should be. Tonight's sashimi platter ($33), for instance, has yellowfin tuna and broadbill swordfish from Nelson Bay and snapper from Coffs Harbour; the only ring-in being Tasmanian salmon.
What can too often be fridge-cold and pre-sliced is instead an elegant arrangement of ambient-temperature, precisely cut tablets of fish and a welcome line-up of kombu, wakame, pickled ginger and soy-based tosa dressing.
It's an effortless match with an equally clean-tasting Rick Stein Semillon Riesling put together by former chief winemaker Iain Rigg of Brokenwood ($14/$64).
One of the menu's strongest drawcards is a platter of lightly warmed shellfish ($39), a lovely rockpool of tumbled pipis, vongole, a couple of good prawns, mussels and scallop doused with light, oily dressing of chilli, garlic and lemon juice.
It's a gentle dish, with cooking times that do justice to the shellfish, and juices that do good things to the excellent sourdough bread (Two Bobs, Nelson Bay).
Other choices pack more punch, like Stockton pipis ($30); the big, meaty bivalves, just-opened by the heat of their sauce.
Heavy with slow-cooked onions, its flavours – and therefore its provenance – aren't clear, until I'm told it's made with an XO chilli sauce cleverly whipped up during lockdown by preserving a stack of Port Stephens oysters that would otherwise have been wasted.
It's great to hear such stories of resourcefulness and good management coming out of lockdown. In a way, we're reverting to the original role of the chef before daily deliveries and pre-printed menus took all the need away, which is to make the most of what is there.
Even messier is Singapore chilli crab ($49), the blue swimmers piled up in a dark, dense, glossy, tomatoey, chilli-laden sauce, without the overt sweetness that can often make this dish childlike. The hand wipes and finger bowl don't stand a chance, and I briefly consider a midnight swim instead.
Desserts are predictably rich, especially a log of warm chocolate olive oil cake ($14), soft and dense, with vanilla ice-cream and a smudge of dulce de leche.
It's all been a treat, even if I miss the simplicity and greatness of cleanly cooked fish and shellfish with naught but a lemon on the side.
You won't get that here, because a luxury resort hotel restaurant needs to make more of what they have for their guests, even when what they have is terrific. Destination dining is for humans, after all, not pelicans.
Rick Stein at Bannisters Port Stephens
Address 147 Soldiers Point Road, Soldiers Point, NSW, 02 4919 3800, bannisters.com.au
Open Lunch Sat 12.30pm-2pm; dinner Wed-Sun 5.30pm-9.15pm
Vegetarian There's a dedicated vegetarian/vegan menu
Drinks Classic cocktails; beers from the local Murray's Craft Brewing Co; and fish-friendly varietals, both local and imported.
Cost About $200 for two, plus drinks
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