As the late, great George Michael once sang: "If you're going to do it, do it right". This is exactly what chef Matt Germanchis and his partner Gemma Gange have done at Captain Moonlite. They've taken over the dining room of an unspoilt (okay, mildly neglected) surf lifesaving club, one with unbeatable beach and coastline views, and modernised both room and menu without cocking it up. It's a minor miracle and a fine argument for the power of simplicity.
Germanchis is best known for his time heading both the Melbourne and Sydney versions of Pei Modern, but the roots of what he's doing at the Anglesea Surf Life Saving Club go back further. About 10 years ago, after a stint in the UK working at Heston Blumenthal's pub The Hinds Head, Germanchis took himself off to Greece and ran a waterfront taverna on the island of Skiathos for a year. That's where Captain Moonlite had its genesis.
The seaside location is matched by breezy touches in the décor.
This isn't to say that it's a Greek taverna. It's not, really, though the menu does include one of the prettiest and most authentic Greek salads around - super-fresh tomatoes, cucumber and capsicum, Kalamata olives, a scattering of dried oregano and a splash of olive oil punctuating the startlingly white slab of feta lying on the top. Add a sea view on a sunny day and it's hard not to get all misty-eyed about that Greek island holiday, even if you never actually made it.
Dips and pita also make an appearance, though they're modern versions of classics presented for maximum prettiness. Any resolution not to photograph everything you eat will be tested often here. The taramasalata is a dazzler - off-white, not too salty, made with an imported roe paste and cultured cream, and topped with Avruga and a sprinkle of Kampot pepper. Tzatziki is heavy on the cucumber, sprightly with lemon juice, fresh mint and dill, and finished with a dark green pool of parsley oil that adds more lively punch. The bread, warm from the grill, is from Thomastown producer Mr Pitta. The authentic-modern dip upgrade is thorough.
Fremantle octopus with potato cake, salt and vinegar.
The grilled Fremantle octopus is a looker. A curling tentacle cooked sous-vide and then finished in a kamado barbecue, it arrives golden, smoky and crisp around the suckers and at the ends. The dish is already a menu stalwart, but Germanchis changes the accompaniments so it might come with a superb crisp potato cake topped with a salt and vinegar powder and aïoli on one day, and then a charred sweet and sour bullhorn pepper on another. Whatever the change, the octopus remains the star - beautifully textured with a finely tuned level of smokiness - a card-carrying representative of traditional Greek cuisine.
But Greece isn't the only word here. It's interesting to observe just how well the place illustrates multiculturalism at work. Take the room for starters. Germanchis' partner, Gemma Gange, a hospitality veteran with Pei Modern, Stokehouse and Jacques Reymond on her CV, has perfectly judged how much change the bones of the surf lifesaving clubhouse needed to make it both fresh and authentic. Her masterstroke? Getting together with the surf club's historians and rehanging the existing framed photos of the club's champion surf lifesavers and life members, framed medallions and timber honour boards on the wood veneer-panelled walls.
The dining room and its original photos and honour boards.
It's a move that honours the club's history and lends it a fashionable gallery-hung charm. Add the lifesaving boats that hover overhead, suspended in the rafters, and the changes Gange has made - comfortable banquettes upholstered in grey fabric, smart white and grey chairs and white Laminex-topped tables on timber legs sporting vases filled with local beach plants - slot seamlessly into the picture, taking nothing away from the immense coastal views framed by large windows.
Then there's the timber-decked veranda with benches and green-and-white striped umbrellas overlooking the sea. Locals, families and off-duty surf lifesavers gather here to refuel before heading back to the beach. And what are these people in this Max Dupain-esque Anglo-Aussie setting refuelling with? Lamb souvlaki from the bar menu, served traditionally with chips wrapped with up with the meat.
The restaurant's ocean vista.
This is where Captain Moonlite really succeeds. Its mix of cultural influences is done with such ease it's almost imperceptible. This is food for this time and this place: Australian beachfront, circa 2017.
The prawn and seaweed cracker is a must. It's a misshapen, plate-sized monster dropped into the centre of the table for everybody to snap pieces off. Move quickly. The prawn and wakame flavours are strong and balanced in the fried tapioca cracker and supplemented with a sprinkling of dashi powder. It's perfect for snacking on over beer. Or sparkling wine. Or water, for that matter.
The raw fish dish changes each day according to what's available. This time it's bonito, lightly cured in lemon, salt and sugar before being quickly smoked and served with a creamy eggplant and white-miso purée, and three charred whole spring onions. Once again, the smokiness remains in the background emphasising, but not overwhelming, the other flavours.
Inside Captain Moonlite.
There should be some kind of law making fried calamari mandatory in a setting like this. Germanchis obliges with a superb version of the classic. Chunky pieces of calamari are scored, lightly coated in a semolina batter, deep-fried and served over frisée salad with sesame dressing. It's a slightly fancy version, but the clean, sharp flavours, concise cooking, subtle crunch and just-pulled-from-the-garden freshness of the leaves (they come in each day from a local producer) are a good argument for fancying things up.
The kitchen keeps the fish and chips simple and classic. The fish, rockling usually, is fried in cottonseed oil in a lovely brittle-crisp batter of rice flour, wheat flour and soda water. The chips, as you would hope from someone with time at Heston's pub under his belt, are also spot on. Made with sebago potatoes, they're golden and fluffy and crunchy where they should be. The fish and chips are served on baking paper with a lemon cheek and a dollop of aïoli. Pretty. Simple.
Whole flounder with sweet and sour tomatoes and chickpea fritters.
There's a whole flounder, too, topped with charred sweet and sour cherry tomatoes and little cube-shaped chickpea fritters. For vegans and non-vegans alike, a Greek-inspired orzo and corn dish, cooked to order like risotto, comes with corn custard, charred whole corn kernels and crunchy sugarsnap peas. It comes across as immensely comforting while also keeping it light and fresh.
The wine list feels fresh, too. It's a short two-pager that spends all its time in Victoria with a gentle emphasis on nearby regions - Geelong, Bellarine Peninsula, Anakie and so on - and small producers. There's rosé from the likes of Save Our Souls and Best's Great Western, shiraz from Provenance, Henty Farm pinot gris and the excellent Holly's Garden ÜberBrut sparkling wine. In keeping with the surf-club setting, prices on the drinks lists are kept under control (topping out at $65 for a 2014 Craiglee Cabernet Sauvignon) and there's a solid collection of beer that includes Carlton Draught and bottled Corona complementing the craftier local offerings.
Chocolate ice-cream in white chocolate mousse.
Desserts at Captain Moonlite stick with the beach theme and emphasise ice-cream. Germanchis has a Carpigiani machine in his pint-sized kitchen and puts it to good use. A textured, refreshing coconut sorbet is teamed with fresh mango and grated macadamia, and a classic chocolate ice-cream is prettily and successfully covered in white chocolate mousse without overdoing the sugar.
The best thing about Captain Moonlite is that it doesn't dash your hopes. Seaside dining in Australia, particularly in coastal towns, should be all about this kind of site-specific food but it's almost never done right. Matt Germanchis and Gemma Gange completely get the context of where they've chosen to do their seaside thing. The mix of influences they bring - Australian, European, Asian - reflect an expert understanding of the current Australian palate, just as the ingredients reflect a sense of place. They've kept it simple. They've done it right.