With the opening of Saint Peter, Sydney chef Josh Niland secures his place among the nation's finest seafood cooks.
The salty smack of Petit Clair de Lune oysters with a half-bottle of oysterman Steve Feletti's Borrowed Cuttings picpoul and some fine and honeyed Berkelo sourdough and cultured butter. Charry herring contrasted with the freshness of a parsley salad. Pale chopped albacore, raw and shining with citrus on crisps of bread. Lush rillettes of ocean trout hidden under rounds of radish. The pleasures of seafood at Saint Peter are great and they are many.
And you'd hope so. Josh Niland, the restaurant's chef and owner, has serious form, having worked at Est, staged at The Fat Duck, and headed the kitchen at Café Nice. But it's the years he spent cooking with Steve Hodges at Fish Face that are most relevant here. Hodges, working with Greg Doyle at Pier in Rose Bay, pretty much wrote the book on Australian seafood, and the lessons weren't lost on his protégé.
Niland nails the classics just as he pushes the boundaries. He's mindful of waste, interested in the accents given by native plants and has a deft way with offal, but you never get the sense that there's too much happening on the plate. He's happy to let his ingredients be the stars.
Half a John Dory, pot-roasted on the bone and served with a handful of almost caramelised garlic cloves and native pepper, could sound almost austere on paper - three things on a plate - but the flavour and buttery texture are rich and generous. Sea bream of shockingly good quality underpins what has to be the best fried fish in town. The firm, white flesh of the fish is briny and juicy under its dark and crunchy crust, while the hand-cut chips (skin on, and none of that triple-cooked nonsense) are superb, retaining the flavour of actual potatoes. A profoundly chunky tartare served with a whole pickle and a pickled onion makes a cute complement.
Petuna ocean trout rillettes and radish.
Even something so simple-seeming as a snapper fillet catches you by surprise with its rich flavour (something Niland achieves in part by carefully dry-ageing the fish in the restaurant's static fridges), with gooey-sweet cabbage roasted in paperbark and a scattering of emerald broad beans providing the follow-up punch.
Thoughtful, often delicate touches abound at Saint Peter. Crisped-up mulloway scales and toasted pepitas texture a side of smoky salt-baked pumpkin, while squeezed limes and a posy of rose geranium in a jug of soda make for an interesting soft-drink.
The plates are printed with a black spot near the rim. It's partly a nod to the name (according to legend, the black mark on the John Dory - a fish also known as the Saint-Pierre and San Pietro - was given to the fish by St Peter, who was a fisherman before he was an apostle), but also an indicator to the diner, the waiter may mention, of which end of the fish to start with. The idea is that while you're eating the thinner part of, say, the fillet, the thicker part is still reaching its optimal temperature. Precious? Yes, indeed. But this conceit, first seen in Sydney at Pier restaurant back in the day, also communicates the care and seriousness with which the kitchen handles its fish.
The confident restraint that marks the savoury courses carries through to dessert: lemon tart shimmers on the plate, clean and pure, while candied sunflower seeds and rolled dates make the unusual but effective complement to a ganache made simply with water and chocolate. (The restaurant also does brunch on weekends; Julie Niland, Josh's wife, is a gifted pastry chef, and her daringly dark kouign-amann makes the perfect follow-up to sea urchin crumpets or sardines on toast.)
Sea urchin crumpet.
Service, meanwhile, is briskly competent - a work in progress - while the all-Australian wine list is a cogent one-pager that balances the hip (Canberra pét nat, Barossa skin-contact gewürtz, Hilltops nebbiolo) with more classical elegance (rieslings from Petaluma and Crawford River, Savaterre chardonnay, pinot from Bass Phillip). It's rounded out with some cool beers, tea by The Berry Tea Company, and filter coffee from fêted Surry Hills roaster Artificer.
The setting isn't Saint Peter's key strength. This is an owner-operated restaurant, and you can feel it. It's not uncomfortable, and you don't get the feeling that corners have been cut, but it's a lean operation with no fat in the budget. The décor is stripped - a longish shopfront of polished concrete, a mixture of sandstone and old brick walls and the kitchen at the back (walk through the door and there's no mistaking the fact its stock-in-trade is seafood). The napkins are paper, the tables unclothed. You're here for the food.
In terms of the quality of its cooking, Saint Peter enters the ranks of Australian seafood restaurants at the top. Josh Niland might be relatively young, but the skills and restraint he learned working alongside Steve Hodges, along with his natural talents and eye for presentation, place him shoulder to shoulder with the best in the game. His passion for his subject is palpable, and his knowledge and technical facility allow him to translate it into fresh and flavoursome dishes that are very much his own.
If seafood is a thing that makes you happy, Saint Peter is here to answer your prayers.
Saint Peter, 362 Oxford St, Paddington, NSW, (02) 8937 2530, saintpeter.com.au. Brunch/lunch Sat-Sun 10am-3pm, dinner Wed-Sun 5.30pm-10.30pm