Restaurant News

Now open: Charcoal Fish, a game-changing fish and chip shop by Julie and Josh Niland

Catch of the day? This Sydney fish and chippery focuses on a single fish species year-round.

By Yvonne C Lam
Seafood savant Josh Niland preparing a Murray cod for the rotisserie at Sydney's Charcoal Fish. Photo: Rob Palmer
It's like a charcoal chicken shop, but with fish. Or a fish and chip shop, but with just one fish species and a slew of roast vegetables. However you spin it, Sydney's Charcoal Fish continues the all-of-the-fish, all-of-the-time legacy established by Julie and Josh Niland at their flagship restaurant Saint Peter and retail business Fish Butchery.
The Nilands announced plans for the Rose Bay business back in May; the build was two days away from completion before the June lockdown halted construction across the city. Now in September it's finally open, and Josh Niland has chopped and screwed the menu – there's a tighter focus on the fish offerings, and a fleshed-out selection of salads and chargrilled vegetable sides.
The service counter at Charcoal Fish. Photo: Rob Palmer
Murray cod is the star(fish) of the show. While there's a stigma attached to the native freshwater fish – it's said to have a distinctive muddy taste – the variety used at Charcoal Fish is farmed in freshwater ponds in Griffith, resulting in a sweeter flavour. And in showcasing a single fish species, Niland is hoping to change the way we think of the fish and chippery.
The low price-point of the traditional fish-and-chip-shop model means many businesses prize affordability of fish over their quality and sustainability; think basa, hoki and flake. On the other end of the spectrum is coral trout and King George whiting – premium eating fish, yes, but unsuitable for a fish and chippery. "It's like putting a Ferrari in a cardboard box," says Niland.
At Charcoal Fish, Murray cod is the favoured fish as it ticks the boxes for availability, affordability and flavour. Plus, as per the Niland playbook, he's able to use almost all parts of the fish across the menu – only the gall bladders and gills go into the bin.
On the menu you'll find a whole Murray cod cooked on a vertical rotisserie, with the flesh, crisp skin and stuffing piled into bread rolls with gravy (made from Murray cod bones). On the charcoal barbecue, there's Murray cod fillets by the whole, half or quarter; pickles, baps and chips come as part of the meal deal too.
Clockwise from left: Rotisserie Murray cod and gravy roll; double yellowfin tuna cheeseburger; fries. Photo: Rob Palmer
Murray cod collars become "wings" served with tamarind sauce, while the tops and tails – cut off from the barbecued fillets – become battered fish and chips. And there's care in the batter too. "You can knock up a batter of self-raising flour, cornflour and VB pretty easily, but that'll just be turning the wheel the same way of however long we've eaten that kind of fish and chips for," says Niland. No, at Charcoal Fish, they slug the batter with vodka – the high alcohol content results in a crisper coating. "The vodka batter is more expensive than the fish and chips itself," says Niland."[And] when we purchase vodka it's not a 750-millilitre bottle. We get it in 25-litre jerry cans."
Fish and chips: fried Murray cod with pickles, yoghurt tartare and chips. Photo: Rob Palmer
A garden salad from your local fish and chippery is good, but Charcoal Fish ups the ante with spit-roasted sugarloaf cabbage with arbol chilli vinaigrette, kohlrabi remoulade and whole-trussed globe artichokes. During his phone call with Gourmet Traveller, Niland is cooking capsicums, destined for the salad of grilled bullhorn and Turkish peppers.
"We're working with all these extraordinary purveyors: Darling Mills Farm, Newcastle Greens, Moonacres Farm, Richard Mohan from up in Noosa [...] I really think if just as much attention is put into these vegetables and salads as the fish, that's a wonderful thing."
In the kitchen at Charcoal Fish. Photo: Rob Palmer
And remember how Murray cod is the only fish on the menu? That was a half-truth. You'll find yellowfin tuna – off-cuts from the sashimi loins often ordered at Fish Butchery – minced, formed into patties, crumbed and fried, and served as a double cheeseburger with onions and a soft sesame-seed bun.
"We're working with Walker Seafood in Mooloolaba who have their own accreditation and strict [fishing] quotas they adhere to," says Niland. (Walker Seafood claims to be Australia's only tuna company with Marine Stewardship Council certification, a globally recognised accreditation for fish sustainability and traceability). "It's not always yellowfin tuna that goes into it – there might be a bit of albacore tuna, bigeye tuna, just depending on what's coming through the doors at Fish Butchery."
On paper Charcoal Fish sounds ambitious, but to date it's the most approachable venue of the Nilands' ventures. Zoom out, and you'll see how Charcoal Fish, Saint Peter, Fish Butchery, plus two fish cookbooks – including the James Beard award-winning tome The Whole Fish Cookbook – form part of Josh Niland's grander scheme to change how diners see and eat fish. "[Charcoal Fish] has got to be a service to Rose Bay and to the eastern suburbs," says Niland. "And eventually broader Sydney when we open up."
Charcoal Fish
670 New South Head Rd, Rose Bay NSW
Open Wed–Sun, noon–3.30pm and 5–8.30pm
charcoalfish.com