To label Maurice Esposito's new venture a "sustainable seafood restaurant" is possibly doing it a disservice, even though that's pretty much exactly what it is. Agree with the principles or not, there's something inherently off-putting about places that trumpet their righteous eco-friendliness - it's easy to suspect that flavour and the dining experience might just play second fiddle to doing the right thing. But that isn't happening here. Saint Peter's makes the argument for sustainable fishing not through preaching and appetite-crushing guilt trips, but by simply cooking carefully selected ingredients with skill and serving them with charm.
Esposito has been closely linked with quality seafood since he bought Carlton seafood institution Toofey's several years ago and restored its reputation as one of Melbourne's go-to joints for a good fish feed. Previous stints at Stokehouse and Il Bàcaro had already marked him as one of the city's Italian chefs of note and his time at Esposito at Toofey's has pointed to how seamlessly he can integrate his strengths.
A good indicator of Esposito's range and his dogma-free approach is that while he has named his restaurant after the patron saint of fishermen, his non-seafood dishes aren't just filler to pacify the unreconstructed carnivores who have darkened his doorstep. Sure, there's the de rigueur steak-and-potatoes (a grass-fed fillet with wilted spinach and a potato cake), but other meaty offerings easily hold their own on the menu.
A venison carpaccio appetiser, for example, is a small, deep-red hued treasure, creamy in texture, the flavour slightly peppery with everything made better by the small tumble of pickled mushrooms that crowns the dish. Likewise Esposito's quail, the only non-seafood rep on the entrée list, immediately makes the must-try pile. The quail, a bird baked golden and surrounded by raucously flavoured blistered cherry tomatoes, is stuffed with a farce of mushrooms, Fontina, garlic, thyme, sage and onion and wrapped in prosciutto. It's beautifully balanced, the meat juicy and delicate, the farce rich but restrained, with the tomatoes adding a punchy down-home honesty.
A similar balancing act of mixing the straightforward with the stylised is at work in Saint Peter's dining room. The split-level restaurant is decked out with quiet simplicity - a pale terrazzo floor, whitewashed walls, a timber-topped bar surrounded by generously sized and upholstered bar stools, linen-dressed tables and an assortment of quite lovely vintage dining chairs. The smoked mirror behind the bar and the chunky wood design features upstairs give the place a low-key 1970s feel, while the outside blue neon sign and nautical aerosol art (possibly obligatory for a Melbourne laneway venue) add some modern urban edge to the venture.
The front of house moves, too, are of a certain era, though in a good-old-days rather than dated kind of way. Led by manager Mariano Masano, the service style here is all about softly spoken affability tied to a solid grasp of what's going on with the menu. Decide to share a dish and you'll see come into play some silver service skills that are something of an endangered species in the modern dining jungle.
Masano is also a dab hand at guiding you through the wine list, a smart eight-page collection of Old and New World labels. Italian varietals are a highlight, and the offering of half-bottles complements a menu that isn't so fish-biased that it can't warrant changing the colour of your wine within the space of a meal.
The main event at Saint Peter's is the seafood, of course, and here Maurice Esposito displays a talent for the stuff that again underlines why he was able to put Toofey's back on the map. He doesn't muck around with it too much, but at the same time there's often a refined, modern touch to his cooking and plating that's a long way from the rustic home-style approach that the phrase "simply cooked seafood" might suggest.
Western Australian sardines are filleted, wrapped in pancetta, crumbed "Calabrian-style" with a mix of fresh crumbs flavoured with parsley and lemon and then fried. Zucchini flowers are stuffed with a smoked eel mousse - a wonderfully simple blend of eel, cream and seasoning - before being encased in brittle beer batter.
A salad of Northern Territory mud crab doesn't break any new ground, but is so skilfully executed that it has all the hallmarks of a signature dish. The picked crab is mixed with julienned apple, avocado, lemon juice and garlic mayonnaise and then formed into a disc that sits in a small pool of spinach essence and is topped with a little stack of baby spinach leaves. It's sprightly and comforting, satisfyingly smooth with subtle plays of texture.
The pasta section of the menu is fertile ground for those seeking admirable simplicity. Spaghettini is tossed with bug tails, garlic, chilli and rocket that's grown by Esposito's mum. Textbook gnocchi - light, slightly sticky and willing to dissolve on second chew - is perfectly matched with generous chunks of rock lobster, a rich, sweet and acidic tomato sugo, some more of those flavour-bomb cherry tomatoes and the restrained addition of a powerful crustacean reduction.
Gyoza stuffed with a mix of yabby, roast garlic and lemon are steamed but not pan-fried (which does register as an absence), and then teamed with cucumbers pickled in vinegar and sugar, and baby beets, also pickled, but with cinnamon and cloves in the mix. It sounds odd, looks beautiful and tastes somewhere in between.
Four out of the six main course spots are given over to fish. There are flathead and John Dory (naturally) that are both cooked straight on the griddle with minimal oil and no fuss. The cooking is admirable as are the accompaniments, which add complexity to the plate without detracting from the main event.
The Dory (brain spiked, from New Zealand) shares a plate with some picked mud crab topped with baby beet leaves, a smear of a mayonnaise flavoured with sweet vermouth and a stack of steamed white asparagus.
The flathead - usually rock flathead but sometimes tiger when inclement weather keeps the fishing boats closer to home - makes friends with some beautifully chewy slow-cooked calamari, oyster mushrooms, parsnip purée and a vin santo reduction, all laid out in a pretty line across the plate.
One of the prettiest dishes is also one of the most sustainable: Esposito's ocean trout is a lovely confit thing that spends several days in a bag with olive oil, peppercorns, bay leaves and coriander seed, so that it emerges slippery and firm of texture, full-flavoured and perfectly matched with the prawns, white coral mushrooms, cauliflower and horseradish that are strewn around it on the plate.
Esposito's sweet carte holds the subtle line between complex and traditional. A rather good almond-flavoured panna cotta sitting on a burnt caramel base is lifted by an incredibly zesty log of passionfruit jelly scattered with mint leaves. The chocolate semifreddo also has merit; it's more like a délice, and is teamed with a chocolate brownie and a lovely, almost savoury chocolate sorbet. An apple terrine with caramel and a milk sorbet sounds tempting but has been MIA on our visits: disappointing, particularly given the brevity of the dessert list.
It would be perfectly easy to eat at Saint Peter's and remain unaware that it was toeing an eco-friendly line. The signs are there for those who look for them (the book that Hilary McNevin, Esposito's wife, has written about sustainable seafood is displayed at the entrance, and there's information on the website), but mostly the impression is of an honest, charmingly run place that's all about giving you a good feed and a good time. As an argument for sustainable eating, it's one of the best there is.