6-8 Marine Parade Byron Bay, NSW 2481
|Opening hours||Daily noon-2.30pm, 6-8.30pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 6685 5366|
Being rich in Byron Bay isn't about being showy – it's about the quality of your linen. And the brief at this seaside fine-diner, down to the Lucy Folk-designed trousers on the waitstaff, is pitch-perfect coastal ease in full louche effect.
Like most luxurious items in the area (the mid-century mansions, the weekend-spins-only vintage Porsches, the $25 kombucha, Hollywood-actor-now-Byron-resident Chris Hemsworth's abs), it's all about the DNA.
The property in which Raes is housed was owned – until the very early '90s – by local eccentric Ruth Harris. The sprawling rendered mansion, sitting just metres from Wategos Beach, was built in the 1960s, inspired by the work of Salvador Dali, and it's rumoured that Liberace once played the piano there. It doesn't really matter whether he did, or didn't. The story is the thing.
Back in the late '80s, the restaurant La Belle Epoque sat under the house. It was, at the time, the only fine-dining for kilometres. Today, it's the Cellar Bar for the main dining room upstairs, now run by Jason Saxby, who was last seen at Sardinian fine-diner Pilu at Freshwater. It wasn't until Saxby came on board in 2019 that Raes felt like anything more than a luxurious beachside locale for resort-hoppers. Now, things have gotten serious.
On my visit, a highly seasoned kangaroo tartare is set on a tuna sauce – a sort of reverse Aussie vitello tonnato when mixed together. It's served with a couple of whisper-thin crostini which, while very pretty on the plate, provide textural interest rather than a vehicle for moving the meat from plate to mouth. I'm not sure what Byron Bay has against carbs (actually, I do) but they really are needed with large serves of rich, highly seasoned fats and proteins.
Case in point, a knot of fresh and creamy local burrata, sitting comfortably alongside finger lime and basil puree, and a perfectly dressed salad of zucchini, squash and mint.
It feels almost superfluous to have all this window dressing when the raw product is so good. But given the setting, the need for a bit of razzle dazzle on the plate is understandable. At any rate, order a side of the excellent bread. It's essential to make short work of the leftover sauces.
There's solid cooking going on here, and the marker for excellence is the pasta. A single, perfect al dente raviolo is filled with carbonara sauce and a perfect egg yolk centre that ebbs out on impact, finished with a scattering of chives. The jury's out on whether a straightforward carbonara might be a little less fiddly and a little more joyous eaten by the sea, but the flavour is definitely there.
Fregola – rubbly little Sardinian pasta nubbins – flesh out a spicy, beautifully buxom tomato broth, given extra oomph with the addition of 'nduja. That broth holds a clutch of mussels and pipis, enlivened with basil.
The only misfire, flavour-wise, is the main course of cobia with a garland of sprouted broccolini, desert limes, black garlic puree and crisped up kale. There's a lot going on in terms of bitter, dark flavour on the plate and it detracts from that nicely cooked piece of fish with its beautifully scarlet bloodlines and just-set flesh.
The use of Boon Luck Farm produce is a real highlight. Chat Thai restaurateur Palisa Anderson's Tyagarah farm provides the snow peas that are blackened and napped in a silky macadamia cream and served as a side. They're very delicious. As are the sweet things.
In a nod to Byron in all its alterno-glory, the coconut tiramisu is everything you love about the original Italian dessert, only so much lighter and more perfumed when made with coconut cream.
Sure, service isn't perfect (you get the impression they did a callout for Byron's most beautiful backpackers, then worked backwards from there). But it is incredibly friendly and well-meaning. Most importantly, it feels like Saxby has made a home here, and really found his voice. And hey – isn't moving to Byron all about self-discovery?
Vegetarian: Available, inquire when booking.
Drinks: A very easy drinking list, with summer in mind. Order a bottle of Bandol rosé and forget about it.
Go-to dish: Kangaroo tartare, now served with horseradish, beetroot, blood plum, hibiscus, $25.
Tip: Have a drink in the Cellar Bar after lunch and watch the sun go down.