THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED.
The end of the world affects us all in different ways. A couple of friends of mine are sufficiently concerned about the coming environmental apocalypse that they've worked out how many bottles of wine they can reasonably expect to drink in the remainder of their natural span, and have started stocking up accordingly. The skies and seas might become too unpredictable to ply with cargo, but they'll be right, toasting the end of days from a very well-stocked (and presumably heavily fortified) cellar. Me, I'll be eating the fish.
People have been saying for years that wild-caught fish will become a luxury in our lifetime. Whatever view you take of the future of fishing and its sustainability as a commercial food source, there's no arguing that things have ever been worse in our oceans and waterways. Newfoundland's cod fishery still hasn't recovered from its sudden and well-publicised collapse in 1992. You're about as likely to find wild-caught unicorn as you are beluga sturgeon; industrial pollution has caused China to lose its once heartfelt love of river and lake fish; fishing for Murray cod (once the most highly priced species on the Sydney Fish Market floor) on a commercial basis has been against the law for decades thanks to overfishing and environmental concerns.
In short, it won't be long before the big hit at your local fish-and-chippa will be wild-caught jellyfish with a side of vat-raised tilapia. And sauce. Life is too short, in other words, for bad fish.
Let's celebrate it like the luxury that it is by spurning mindless turn-and-burn cooking and seeking out that small band of perverse individuals who choose to run their restaurants the hard way, and specialise in seafood. I say perverse because there's pretty much no sensible reason to open a fish restaurant. You're dealing with a product whose supply is highly susceptible to weather, one that needs the most careful handling of any protein. Can't sell your steak this week? Whack it on the menu as "dry-aged" next week, no worries. See how far you get with that selling mackerel. Worse still, most people still want to drink white wine with their fish, so where your mate running the steakhouse gets a nice juicy cut on his cabernet and shiraz sales, you're making do with the measly percentages afforded by riesling and sauv blanc.
No, fish is a racket only for the mad, bad and the bold. And in Fish Face Dining we might just have all three. You're not going to find many people in the game who wouldn't agree that Steve Hodges knows more about cooking fish than just about anyone in the country. Put him in a room with fellow fish-whisperer Neil Perry and Greg Doyle, Hodges' brother-in-arms back in the day at Pier, and you've got the cheffing side of the fish brains-trust sewn up. America has just recently jumped on the ike-jime train, trumpeting the value of this method of brain-spiking fish to keep their flesh at optimal quality. This mob were all over it 20 years ago. Their "fish butchery" is more akin to surgery.
These guys know all about cold-chain management, about buying fish whole, dry-filleting them (tap water speeds deterioration), and keeping the flesh in static fridges so it doesn't dry out. Hodges has custom-made weights - they look a bit like flat-irons - that he puts on the fillets in the pan so they cook more evenly. At Pier 15 years ago, when you were asked by your waiter to start eating your fillet at the thin end so the thick end would've just finished cooking by the time you got to it, it inspired chuckles, yes, but it also left you in no doubt how seriously these guys took their sprats.
In Fish Face Dining in Double Bay, we see Hodges coming full circle, returning to fine dining after a decade in a Darlinghurst bistronomy set-up. His partner in this mission is his protégé, Josh Niland, a young chef who has worked at a host of notable kitchens (Est among them) but maintains a Skywalker-Kenobi relationship with his sensei.
They still give the people what they want out the front, the "Fish Face favourites" menu offering Sydney's best fish and chips (black flathead plus the most handsome chips in town), blue-eye, juicy under crisp potato scales, on ricotta and grilled kale, and a Chinese-style prawn omelette dragged out of the '90s with a saltbush garnish. It's buzzy, busy and all bar seating. Out the back, though, in the fancier bit, Niland has been given what looks like free rein.
This is not a cheap enterprise - even the fish and chips out the front will set you back $35, and all the main courses in the fancier part start north of $45. But do you really want discount seafood? Suffice it to say you get what you pay for. The room has been kitted out accordingly for the most part: double-clothed, well-spaced tables, heavy cutlery, decent stemware, Edison bulbs, Eames chairs. They're still figuring out the lights, the music seems better suited to a day spa than a fine-dining restaurant, and lack of adequate ventilation from the open kitchen doesn't make things more comfortable. Service is good, though the pace can lag. The wine list is serviceable, if nothing to set the pulse racing.
Fortunately our man Niland doesn't drop a stitch in the cooking department, and his work here at Fish Face Dining confirms him as a talent of note. The name might be a bit clunky but there's elegance in the "omakase of raw fish", a salad of dory, trevally, tuna and snapper presented with soy and wasabi in Chinatown-cute blue-and-white ceramics. The pigeon entrée (pictured above) is plated as only a young chef can: the bird roasted pink and gamy, its split head on the plate with a bed of torn figs and toasty hazelnuts, the claw intact on the leg and reaching for the sky like an autumnal allegory. I'd happily order anything listed on the menu.
I won't rest till I've tried the Holmbrae duck with dandelion and Davidson plum, and I'm intrigued by the prospect of pairing mahi mahi with roast onion tapioca, whatever that is. For now, though, let's proceed directly to the hapuku. Here the princely fish is sold as a deep fillet, the skin burnished, the meat happy in a very simpático foamed sauce of white-wine vinegar and butter with a splash of Alsace riesling thrown in at the end. There's some pepper-leaf in there, too, but I can't see it. I'm too busy obsessing over the paperbark-roasted celeriac. You can see it sitting on the pass, smoking away like a yurt in Nimbin, and the pieces of the bulb, scattered with a few beach succulents, do wonders for the fish, full of buttery savour. This young man has a palate.
He's also married to one of the most promising pastry chefs in town, Julie Niland. She's not in the kitchen, but I reckon I can see her hand in a stunning Granny Smith dessert. The apple comes in a long rectangular slice, cooked to sweet, complete acquiescence. Next to it: a piece of brioche of similar proportions, caramelised on all sides. A finely judged white-beer ice-cream provides the lubrication, and diced apple brings more texture. A superb dish, from conception to execution. As a closing touch, it's hard to beat the offer of a madeleine, powdered, perfect and hot from the oven.
If the end truly is nigh, we'd best make the most of it. Though it wants for certain creature comforts, the new Fish Face is home to some truly inspired cooking, and it's a pleasure to see an old master and young buck working in such seeming harmony. Get in while you can.