The mahi mahi with roasted bone sauce is sold out. So is the wedge of sugarloaf cabbage grilled slowly over coals and smothered in a miso crab sauce. The purple corn bread, flattened, grilled, and served with spicy 'nduja made from albacore? Sold out, too. Outside the streets are half-lit and deserted, but here, a week in, it's busy, bright, and the kitchen is straining.
Pipit, Ben Devlin's new restaurant, is in Pottsville, a little coastal town 30 minutes' drive north of Byron. Turning onto Coronation Avenue, the main road – the only road, really – there's a painted strip on the asphalt saying this is a Koala Zone. Neighbourhood Watch signs line the streets. There's a pizza shop, a couple of bottle-os, an IGA, and this, a restaurant on the corner built from scratch by a couple with a new baby.
Like Fleet in Brunswick Heads, or Doma in Federal, the appearance of a good new restaurant in this town of 6000 is big news in these parts. The local people know Ben Devlin, for one. A Byron boy, the chef cooked at Esquire in Brisbane, Noma in Copenhagen, and most recently, helmed Paper Daisy at Cabarita Beach where for four years he oversaw an all-day kitchen that married a menu laden with local seafood and beach greens with the breezy Slim Aarons fantasy that is Halcyon House.
Here it's still local, but freer, a little looser, more elemental. Sure, a week in, Devlin looks somewhat manic – the opening menu is called The Late Autumn, Late Restaurant, Running Late Menu – but it's a controlled mania, driven, determined. And he knows how to lean on his skills and the relationships he's developed to get early dishes over the line. The simplest of canapés – cucumbers, wing beans, baby radishes, and young angled gourd from nearby Boon Luck Farm, sliced to order and piled into a bowl with a dab of almond cream – shows confidence in the quality of his suppliers. An éclair-like "finger bun" piped full with mullet cream and topped with blobs of sweet-sour Brazilian cherry shows the kitchen's confidence in their technique, the crisp shell collapsing to the bite, cream spilling.
More than anything, Pipit is a community project: Devlin doing the tiling, his dad, a carpenter, building the outdoor furniture, his partner Yen Trinh sorting the back-of-house and just about everything else, and locals filling in the details. Most striking are the finely wrought pendant lights from Søktas in Currumbin that hang above the kitchen counters, and the plates and bowls, many of them made by Pottsville neighbours Grit Ceramics. I can't tell which are the ones made with tuna-spine ash, but I'm not sure that's the point.
It's largely a DIY job, but barring a few wonky tiles behind the bar, it doesn't really show. The concrete floor is polished bright, large windows face the street, and the long benchtops and steep stools, made from blackwood timber, are buff and handsome. Though I do wonder if, before they committed to them, anyone tried sitting on the stools for the two hours it takes to get through a meal. Most seating is counter seating, and if you're sat at the pass the workings of the kitchen are on show in their entirety.
Observing Devlin is arresting. He's front and centre, spinning between the pass and a central wood grill, turning slabs of dolphinfish, cutting tranches of celeriac, spritzing vegetables cooked à la minute with a mist from a bottle labelled Chardonnay Vin. There are a lot of restaurants where the chef stands at the pass, slicing, smearing, instructing, plating and tweezing. There are few where they cook at the same time.
It's a feat of multi-tasking and presence of mind, and it's well pulled off, Devlin's command of the grill masterful, the timing spot on. Half a baby chicken, skin crisp, meat pulling off the bone, is checked with a thermometer and served hot off the coals on a bunya-nut purée and a splash of sweetcorn sauce, with grilled squash and a tangle of gourd tendrils to the side. And even if the promised celtuce and pickles are missing from a dish of baby Queensland groper and grilled rapini, you can't fault the execution. Put the missing ingredients down to first-week yips.
Another teething problem: the environmental angle. Devlin has said he'll have no hoofed animals on the menu, and it's working out fine, but the approach to seafood is proving difficult. The chef has signed up to the Good Fish Project, which means he's only using species approved as sustainable by the Australian Marine Conservation Society. In practice that means working with strict limits in a region that's known for an abundance of seafood.
Wild prawns, so prevalent on menus here, are commonly trawled in the area, so they're off limits. Snapper is overfished. It's not about best practice – what's impeccably sourced and handled isn't always sustainable (on the flip side, what's sustainable may not be impeccably handled). There are days Devlin faces the prospect of breaking his word, or serving no seafood at all. It's tough, but giving a damn usually is. I hope he sticks with it.
Keep up the good work with vegetables, though, and he may not have a problem. A cold circle of chopped eggplant he's calling a tartar has a linger of smoke, with fresh purple and white variegated peanuts and shredded chicory adding crunch and depth. Celeriac, infused with the flavour of the fig leaves it's baked in, is finished on the grill and served with a grain porridge warmed through in almond milk. Fresh and powdered chrysanthemum greens bring a grassy intensity. Devlin has a surety to his work, often doing the smallest of things to build layers of flavour, spooning a sauce of lacto-fermented green garlic over the almond cream that comes with the canapés; dusting the spatchcock with a powder made from huitlacoche, the delicious corn fungus.
Pipit tries to speak to the coast, not only with the seafood, the fruit and vegetables from growers close to the ocean, or salty plants and seaweeds, but with the wine. The list, overseen by Matt Love, formerly of Labart and Cutler & Co, seeks out bottles produced near to the coast (any coast), or made with grapes grown in "marine soils", and adds them to a few benchmarks. There's 2014 Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru Chablis, made by Louis Michel & Fils, which probably qualifies as a benchmark more than for the fact the grapes grow on an ancient seabed. The Pittnauer Pitti rosé from Burgenland in Austria? I'm not sure. Is Lake Neusiedl an inland sea? Would you describe the Yarra as coastal?
Whatever. The wines work, the tropical flavours of a cloudy orange pétit manseng from Jilly in nearby Clunes, or the minerality of a 2016 Francois Chidaine chenin, match the profiles of the menu, which is what they're going for really. In the main it's a short list, fragrant and leaning white, driven by minimal intervention and with range in price and variety. About half the wines are on by the glass for anyone driving (which is most people), and there's a decent white and red at $45 apiece. The Tumby Tea, meanwhile, made with the juice from slow-grilled apples, spiced rum and ginger makes, served cold, a fresh welcome drink or, served hot, a warm nightcap.
On the floor Love is keen, and relaxed, and knows his way around the list. The rest of the team are still getting to grips with the food side, but they're well led by Emily Smith, who also came from Paper Daisy, and there's warmth and promise aplenty. Finding people who'll buy into the dream long-term is the key.
Dessert might show off tropical fruit, the funk of jackfruit sorbet playing off passionfruit and coconut milk crisps, for example. But order the half-moon of honey frangipane cake. Served warm, it's fluffy in the centre, crisp on the outside, with hibiscus leaf and citrus, including pomelo and lemonade fruit, brightening a scoop of ricotta on the side. Cute and extra comforting.
Devlin has said that he wants the food at Pipit to be simple, beautiful and layered with flavours and complexity. On that count, he's succeeded. In building a restaurant with people from the community, and engaging locals to keep it running, he's excelled. First Pottsville, then the world.