Shop 2, 16 The Terrace Brunswick Heads, New South Wales 2483
|Opening hours||Thu-Mon 3pm-10pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Degustation, Green-eco focus, Licensed, Romance-first date, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 6685 1363|
Meet Fleet, a restaurant with a difference. Make that quite a few differences. For a start, it's tiny. At most, it seats 22 people, and that's only if the weather is good and eight can sit outside. Secondly, there are no tables; just a long, solid concrete block of a counter that leads straight into the kitchen, and 14 handsome, Tasmanian oak stools crafted by local cabinet maker, Martin Johnston. Thirdly, it's in Brunswick Heads, where my previous gastronomic experience has been limited to a counter lunch at the local pub.
Fleet is one of the most enchanting regional restaurants to have opened in Australia in the last 12 months. Owners Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis last worked together at the trail-blazing, two-hatted Loam restaurant in Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula where she was co-owner and he was sous chef to Aaron Turner, now of Igni.
Together they bring a modern ma-and-pa sensibility and warmth that is in direct contrast to the minimalism of the space, best described as a concrete bunker warmed with wood and lined with wine.
A lot of people cry local, but here, it means house-cultured butter cleverly mixed with beurre noisette; crusty sourdough from the Bread Social bakery at The Farm in Byron Bay; and locally made tonic syrup gracing a vastly superior gin and tonic, chilled with a giant single orb of ice. Even the natural shapes of the stoneware have been crafted by Bangalow "earth-bender" Anna-Karina Elias. The only exceptions to the local rule are on the mostly organic, preservative-free wine list, including a fresh and flavourful 2012 Channing Daughters Tokai Friuliano ($17.50/$78) from Long Island, USA.
Another difference? Only two dishes on the 15-strong menu get past the $20 mark, while the eight-course menu is a very fair $75 a head.
This is sophisticated, small-plate dining; one dish as simple as a salad of green zebra tomatoes with preserved green plums and oregano ($11); another as show-stopping as a whole Ballina king prawn, split like a biology experiment, then brushed with black garlic oil and roasted ($16).
A long, lean slice of raw yellowfin tuna is topped with shavings of guanciale ($18), then gently blow-torched to crisp the edges of the cured pig jowl and bathe the tuna in its clean fattiness. Henceforth, I want all my raw tuna to be topped with guanciale, thank you. And all my potato crisps to be stuck like an afro frizz into a creamy smoked mullet dip ($14) that is a brilliant use of a maligned fish; and all my parson's noses to be pan-fried and promiscuously served with pickled oysters and compressed watermelon rind ($24).
It's a warm, chatty place; good for couples. Both Astrid McCormack and barman Rob Mudge are naturally engaging, and Josh Lewis' quietly captivating food has a sneak-up-on-you mischievousness. A downy-soft, white-bread "schnitty sanga" ($13) pairs crumbed sweetbreads and anchovy and mustard mayo ($13) in a shock of crisp and soft, hot and cold. Dessert is scrupulously simple; fresh nectarines with a strangely bitter honey and toasty ice-cream of roasted bearded (wholegrain) barley ($12).
It all makes Fleet an easy restaurant to adore, if not so easy to access. The driving motivation of both McCormack and Lewis is to work only with food producers and wine-makers of equal passion to their own, and the care is palpable.
Please flourish, Fleet, and become a beacon for small, individual passion-project restaurants and bars up and down the country. Then this place of many small differences will, itself, make a difference.
Best bit: The pride and the passion.
Worst bit: It's 771km from Sydney.
Go-to dish: Yellowfin tuna, guanciale, fermented peas, $18.
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.