Call it a symptom of our straitened times, but the key schools of restaurant design in Sydney circa 2012 seem to be austerity and hilarity. The austere means not so much an industrial as a post-industrial look - not a factory, but a factory after it's been looted and then mysteriously restocked with a coffee machine and a full bar. At the likes of Reuben Hills and The Apollo, bricks and beams are left exposed, but so too are pipes, plaster and ragged edges, all carefully tweaked and softened by the cunning deployment of lights and music.
The Fish Shop is the latest and perhaps boldest example of the hilarity school, a maximal style big on detail and texture and short on clean lines. Its prime exponents locally have to be James Miller and James Wirth, who, along with Melbourne designer Michael Delany-Korabelnikova, have made over the inner-city Flinders, Norfolk, Carrington, Abercrombie and Forresters hotels to glass-clinking acclaim. Theirs is a more-is-more approach, a sort of cool-kitsch, rumpus-room-chic conflagration of tchotchkes and bold-type signage, all tied together with a broad streak of irreverence and a healthy slug of hooch.
Merivale hospitality tsar Justin Hemmes found similar inspiration when he partly gutted Foveaux Street's Excelsior to accommodate his perma-pop-up El Loco, and has now taken it a step further with the rebranding of what used to be Lotus on Challis Avenue in Potts Point. Out went the Florence Broadhurst wallpaper in a whirlwind renovation, and the designer chandelier with it. In their place you'll find a larger-looking restaurant clad in timber, tiles, sailcloth and pebblecrete.
The tables are gone, too, replaced by stools around high benches topped with zinc, chalkboard material or chopping-board plastic. Bottles of malt vinegar (Sarson's, naturally) and tomato sauce cluster with tomato tins of cutlery and paper napkins and big milk-bar-style shakers of salt. There's rope in place of a handle on the door to the toilets, and a doormat out the front in the shape of a reef knot. Or possibly a double stevedore's granny hitch. If you can dangle a feathered lure from it, or make it wear a stripy shirt, the thinking seems to be, you might as well whack on a seashell and drape it with driftnet while you're at it. If you're looking for an aesthetic reference point, look somewhere between The Frying Dutchman and The Rusty Barnacle in The Simpsons. It's fun.
Seafood, in case you hadn't picked up on it, is the theme. Seafood made fun and accessible, via a mash-up of Aussie milk-bar and British chippy tropes, with a dash of Americana to season it, for the masses. Or whatever well-dressed, young, hot version of the masses you get in Potts Point.
The buoys-and-gulls lark extends beyond the hooks and floaters on the walls and the net-shrouded lamps to a menu conceit that has the carte and wine list enfolded on the inside of a printed A4 sheet styled like a newspaper, the Reel News. Its motto is "Today's headline, tomorrow's fish wrapping". "Fish are friends and food," reads the front-page headline, from one Sandy Plankton. Thank you, Finding Nemo.
Fortunately that's as far as the reheated gags go (okay, there and the excellent kids' activity sheet: tic-tac-roe!). The food and drink are, if not startling in their originality, fresh in their focus and execution. Group sommelier Franck Moreau is something of a genius with the grape, and his work in putting together Merivale's first almost all-Australian list, with a strong natural and organic bias, is as impressive as ever. The Domaine Lucci white blend is his pick for fish-and-chips drinking, while the cheeseburger, he says, goes best with the Wedgetail pinot from the Yarra or the Tommy Ruff shiraz mourvèdre. If you don't express a preference, your wine comes in slim tumblers, but you don't have to press very hard if you want something with a stem instead.
Order a Bloody Caesar (the classic Clamato juice variation on the Mary) and it comes out garnished with actual clams in their actual shells in a camping mug, enamelled tin being the material of choice for just about all of The Fish Shop's wares. (Between Kitchen by Mike at the new Koskela warehouse and these guys, I'm predicting a run on plates and bowls at disposal stores city-wide.) The same sort of mug also brings potato soup, silken stuff with plenty of diamond-shell clams in it, that can warm you to the very core of your being. Wait a minute - this food is really good.
Jeremy Strode, who also heads the kitchen at Bistrode CBD, is in charge of the eats, a fact which more or less automatically gives the whole operation weight and substance in matters culinary. Strode has the kind of pristine classical CV that you just couldn't make up. He gives such a deep damn about the quality of food issuing from any kitchen he's in that it's tempting to say he couldn't send out a bad plate even if he wanted to. Strode's cooking for the past several years has been about reducing what's on the plate to a very few, very good ingredients, and that's a style that goes over very well indeed in a smart-casual seafood restaurant.
The fish and chips arrangement definitely ticks the box. It's flathead, and the kitchen makes the Coopers Pale beer batter to order in only a longneck or two at a time, which might explain its unusual lightness and crunch. The chips are hand-cut sebago numbers (other dishes come with pre-cut, however), skin-on, dense, in the traditional Anglo-Australian style - none of your Heston Blumenthal triple-cooking palaver here, thanks - crying out for vinegar.
These guys fry with the best of them. Be it Sydney sprats, thick-cut potato scallops or croquettes smoky with eel and spiked with horseradish, things are crisp where they should be crisp and golden where they should be golden. Fish fingers here are a steal - more or less a whole blue-eye fillet, sliced thick, crumbed crunchy and fried juicy. It's the same story with the fillet of mulloway that forms the centre of a killer fish burger, sandwiched between bacon, mayo, hot sauce, lettuce and pickled jalapeños. Then there's the classic smoked salmon sandwich (crustless, with capers, cream cheese and chives) - the perfect partner to Larmandier-Bernier Brut by the glass. They've also retained what used to be called the Lotus cheeseburger, a relic of Dan Hong's tenure as chef, and while the Shop's rendition is note-perfect, the fish burger may, in fact, be the superior offering.
The printed menu is supplemented by the market board: garfish, butterflied and grilled, mahi mahi with fine green lentils, mussels steamed open in wine and thyme in the French mode, or spanking fresh whole blue mackerel, slashed, charred and resplendent. There's also something tremendously comforting about hearing a waiter refer to something being cooked in a bag and then realising they're not using the phrase as a euphemism for sous-vide poaching. Here it might be hapuku, sealed in baking paper with fennel and preserved lemon, steamed till it's just set, served still wrapped with lemon and a little pile of Murray River salt on the side. Servings are smallish, but so are the prices.
Dan Hong's contribution isn't the only external influence on the kitchen. Jane Strode provided the recipe for the rather excellent unfermented cabbage kimchi which dresses raw kingfish, red onion and sesame beautifully, while Eric Koh, the former Hakkasan chef who will oversee dim sum at Mr Wong when it opens under the Establishment in a few weeks, makes the siu mai-like dumplings sold fried or steamed as chicken and cabbage "dim sims".
Perhaps the most unexpected contribution, though, comes from owner Justin Hemmes himself. Here, he's more hands-on than ever. The dishes from his repertoire - fractal curls of scored cuttlefish lolling in garlic, chilli, oil and parsley, and the snapper special, cooked with salted water and served with heirloom tomatoes and red onion - suggest the hotelier is no dilettante at the table.
The absence of coffee or tea options sends a clear message about the style of this restaurant: you've eaten, and you're welcome to order another drink, but otherwise, there's the door. Desserts hold the line. There are only two of them, and they're short and sweet: a Monaco Bar-like mascarpone ice-cream sandwich, enlivened by crunchy bits in the chocolate biscuit layers and a glossy salted caramel sauce, and an ice of the day, which, if you're lucky, will be as good as the coconut sorbet sauced with melted palm sugar. You're here for a good time, not a long time.
Merivale has been pretty consistently getting its restaurants right for about a decade now; as the company talent-pool deepens, so too does the strength of its concepts and the rigor of their production. Sydney is a more fun place to live for it. The Fish Shop has been realised with verve, and Potts Point likes it as a seagull likes chips. We're hooked.