Time was, a flash feed on the South Coast meant a lemon with your fish and chips and a glass for your Tooheys Old. Generations of kids from Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and all points between have grown up holidaying on this stretch of the New South Wales coast running from just below Wollongong, where the Sydney sprawl finally recedes, right the way down to Merimbula, where cars with Victorian plates start to rival the yellow-and-black. They've spent their Christmases blistering on beaches at Broulee, Narrawallee and Gerringong, and their Easters farewelling the last of the warm weather in pubs at Husky, Moruya and Ulladulla. But they haven't hitherto spared much thought for what they were going to eat, beyond the odd good oyster, and maybe a dripping ice-cream from the van pulled up on the promenade. Unlike Byron Bay or Margaret River, the South Coast hasn't really been a magnet for travellers from further afield, and even in recent years it's hardly been Noosa or even Sorrento when it comes to good food. But the times, friend, they are a-changin'.
Since we slipped into this new millennium, things have begun ramping up. Just about as many good places have closed as opened, but just enough have stuck to have made a palpable difference. And because the coast becomes less and less gentrified the further south you drive past Nowra there are still hidden gems that pre-date the caffè latte revolution, old-school producers and unreconstructed watering holes, waiting to be enjoyed anew. The biggest news of all comes from an incongruous champion from an unexpected quarter. In a move about as predictable as Mario Batali opening a pasta joint in Bourke or Nigella Lawson selling cupcakes at Rosebud, TV chef and seafood specialist Rick Stein has set up shop in Mollymook, opening a smart fish restaurant in October 2009. If you're a South Coast regular or resident who likes to eat, things are looking up, and if you've not yet had the pleasure, now's the time to take the Princes Highway by the hand and take it for a twirl.
An esky in the car is always a good policy on a drive down the coast, especially if you're armed with the knowledge that the Kiama Fisheries' bright yellow shop is just down from the lighthouse. Steve Leoleos and Ruth Dewhurst work with many of the smaller boats, two-man operations happy to deal in smaller quantities rather than ship the lot straight to Sydney, so you can pick up the likes of snapper, trevally and kingfish so fresh that they still have rigor mortis. This is a beautiful thing.
If you like your food already gutted, filleted and cooked, though, your first port of call heading south from Sydney will almost certainly be Berry. Here is a town that, for better or for worse, draws a significant part of its income from Sydneysiders dropping by on their way to the coast. The traditional stop is the Berry Doughnut Van, which is, as described, a van by the side of the road selling doughnuts, hot from the fryer (and damned fine they are too). Should you want to buck custom and lunch on something that isn't sprinkled with cinnamon, you'll do no better than the Berry Sourdough Bakery & Café. A block off the main drag, it's entirely non-twee in its presentation, a spare, airy brick-floored room jammed with bentwood chairs and timber tables. The wood-fired oven produces good bread and pizze and calzone, but chef Caroline Read's short and smart menu also runs to gooey gnocchi with sausage, cavolo nero, Taleggio and pangrattato, and thickly sliced squid strewn over coins of fried chorizo, green beans and romesco sauce. This is café-level cooking, but in the best sense and with café-style prices.
Gunning the wheels ever further south, if you have even the slightest interest in oysters you'll want to detour off the highway briefly to Greenwell Point. It's a haven for the bivalves on this part of the coast, and the oyster shacks and huts on the water offer direct buying at its best. Call in at Jim Wild's shack and have a chat to Jim or his wife Robyn. Jim was the winner at the 1984 Galway oyster shucking world championships (30 oysters opened in two minutes, 31 seconds), but Robyn is pretty handy with the knife herself. While the area offers an environment the rock oysters are very happy with - pristine, nutrient-rich waters - the places selling them are very low-key, some of them not much more than sheds with sinks, fridges and cash registers and maybe a bowl of lemons, offering oysters and not much more. If you're smart you'll grab a loaf of sourdough and some expensive butter from the Berry Sourdough Bakery and maybe a cold beer on the way down to enjoy with some of the better rock oysters you're likely to lay your hands on.
Stop in for the night (at the very least) at Paperbark Camp, in the bush just outside Huskisson. One of the state's first big-name eco-lodges, these guys have been in the deluxe tent business for a decade now, and they do it well. The tents, large, comfortable and solidly furnished affairs set on platforms amid the spotted gums and namesake melaleucas, are at the ends of tracks radiating out from the striking architecture of the main building. It's here that you'll find The Gunyah, one of the really impressive South Coast restaurants. It's long had a strong native Australian ingredient focus, but new chef John Evans has chosen to tone it down in favour of a more contemporary European feel.
Locally sourced ingredients are one feature of the menu that hasn't changed. "On the South Coast I've had a chance to develop a closer relationship with growers and farmers, and that's something I'm really into," says Evans. "Trusst Tomatoes and The Strawberry Farm at Sussex Inlet, things like that." The Nowra Fish Market, Evans says, yields local seafood of exceptional quality, such as Ulladulla kingfish and snapper from Mollymook, as well as those superb rock oysters. "I've been doing what I hope is good food in Sydney for some years now, but I feel like this is a better chance to make my mark."
Evans and his wife Sonia Greig have lost none of the polish that earned them a legion of fans in the years they ran Rozelle's Three Weeds. A paperbark-smoked quail and rabbit rillettes shimmers under a disc of riesling jelly, and the simple, crisp-skinned pleasures of pan-roasted blue-eye with Nicola potatoes, manzanilla olives and fennel dressing show that half the skill of a chef is knowing when to leave well enough alone. Stay on a bit longer and you'll get to know more of the camp's attractions (along with more of Evans' and Greig's work - the poached eggs with mixed Mittagong tunnel mushrooms for breakfast, say). The suggestion of a packed lunch for a canoe trip an hour down the river to the pub at Huskisson is enough to ensure we'll be back.
If the fishing hub of Ulladulla is akin to Byron Bay in its development, then Mollymook, with its increasingly pricey houses and lush beaches, is the region's Wategos. Milton, set back only a few kilometres from the water, is its Bangalow in that it's a sleepy town comparatively untouched by the evils of the modern era. It has a couple of decent pubs, a popular vegetarian burger joint, Pilgrims Wholefoods, a good gallery in the form of Kingstudio, and a scattering of gift and antique shops. Perhaps the town's greatest attraction, though, is also its most incongruous. Revival would be notable for the quality of its collection of 20th-century furniture on high streets in Paddington or South Yarra; in 19th-century Milton, population 2500, it's positively strange, but that seems to be the way Gino Gionta likes it. He and his partner visit the Milan Furniture Fair each year and spend a couple of months at their property outside Rome. "We open up the gates and pretend to be Italian for a while," says the impeccably astute Gionta. "And Milan is a nice place to be during the fair because everyone is there to talk about design for two weeks. It's fun." The shop itself is unprepossessing: simply two rooms of a brick arcade and a shed set back off the main road, crammed with chairs from the likes of Eames and Featherston. These treasures of Regency, Deco and Memphis provenance are gloriously restored, and Gionta's candour of opinion and fairness of pricing have made the shop a favourite destination of collectors and the merely curious alike.
All that talk of the relative merits of American and Danish-made Eames recliners (it's all about the American originals) can inspire a serious hunger, and the best place to address that in Milton's immediate vicinity is Cupitt's Winery. Five minutes' drive out of town, Cupitt's is a pair of handsome stone buildings set midway down a vine-covered hill. Its deck overlooks dewy dairy flats and the restaurant punches out modern European eats of surprising finesse. Competent cooking and a welcome absence of frippery come to the fore in the lamb rack teamed with a chock of braised neck, black olives, white onion purée and little browned marbles of potato, and the vividly flavoured strawberry jelly set over panna cotta. The too-many-notes-Herr-Mozart syndrome that mars too many a regional restaurant's offering is nowhere to be seen. Amen.
For maximum fabulousness, though, it's all about Bannisters. Looking out over the ocean on Bannisters Point, the knobbly bit of land which separates the beautiful north Mollymook and Narrawallee beaches, it's undoubtedly the slickest hotel between Sydney and the border. Slick, that is, but not too cool for school. It was once a motor lodge, and rather than try to duck that cinderblock fact, the owners, in refitting it to that point of maximum fabulousness - large freestanding baths and those nesty wicker hanging chairs in some of the suites - have opted to let the place retain some personality. This is a good thing, whether it's expressed in the natural friendliness of the staff or the excellent bar by the pool. It's a pretty splendid place by any measure, and that's even before you start to Rick and roll.
The restaurant part of Bannisters had latterly been one of the smarter operations on this part of the coast. When Rick Stein rolled into town, the ranks swelled both front- and back-of-house and the kitchen got a thorough refit. Stein, if you're not familiar with him, is the British chef whose gentle but intelligent investigations of seafood around the world have become required viewing for ABC viewers over the past decade or so. His partner Sarah Burns is Australian, and he has been a frequent visitor to the wetter parts of the wide brown land for five years now. Technically speaking, his move has been a long time coming; it was an epiphanic moment eating Pambula oysters in Merimbula back in the 1960s, Stein says, that first fired his passion for this part of the world. In this, his first restaurant outside the UK, he follows an approach much like that of his famed establishment in Cornwall's Padstow, the very similar menu roaming the world, cherry-picking seafood classics garnered from his adventures, and pairing the flavours with a local catch.
Stein names blue-eye trevalla, hapuka, John Dory and sand whiting as his favourites. "The first two produce large firm white fillets of excellent tasting fish. There is nothing quite like them in the UK," he says. "Though we have John Dory in the UK, the South Coast fish are bigger and tastier. Sand whiting is one of my favourite fish anywhere." He also values Clyde River and Merimbula oysters and Lake Illawarra prawns.
"I'm hoping the restaurant will develop into being the seafood restaurant in the area," says Stein. "I would love it to become so popular that it influenced others to open similar restaurants on the coast to develop what I consider to be a slightly unsung hero, South Coast seafood."
There are good things to be said for the stir-fried mussels in a pool of gingery broth flavoured with black beans, spring onions and coriander, even if, it must be said, some of the other Asian dishes are a bit on the tame side. It's something of a surprise to see a rock-star fish like hapuka in the battered fish with fat chips, tartare sauce and good old-fashioned mushy peas, but the quality of the fish itself is right up there. The simplicity of the treatment of the oysters, prawns, periwinkles, crab, mussels and squid in the signature shellfish entrée, where they're simply cooked and sauced with parsley, oil, lots of garlic and a little chilli is admirable. The single most impressive dish for our dollar, though, is the oysters Charentaise - local oysters opened to order and teamed with a pile of house-made Charentaise sausage hot from the pan. Down the oyster, bite the sausage, glug the wine and toast your good fortune.
Stein himself is more the patron than the chef in hands-on terms, and continues to spend much of his year in the UK and on the road. You might be lucky and catch him for a cameo, but enjoying his voice through the menu is probably going to be more like it. The chap actually shaking the pans here is Julian Lloyd, a British chef who first worked for Stein more than 10 years ago. Lloyd has cooked in Sydney and Cairns and has something of a feel for what people here want to eat. "The John Dory is flying out the door, the curry, and I go through hundreds and hundreds of oysters here," he says.
Things get a notch more rustic when you drive the extra hours past Batemans Bay (a town many think is best enjoyed from a speeding vehicle). For us, the last serious stop on the South Coast, in terms of a meal you'd drive out of your way for, is The River. It's at Moruya, a small, pretty township set back from the heads on the highway on the wide and river-like swell of Donalds Creek. The restaurant is very relaxed, its balcony looking out over the water and open to the air. Chefs Tobie Patrick, Peter Compton and Tim Saffery left Melbourne to move out among the casuarinas and jacarandas, but they brought a piece of the city with them. The team's food is a bit more worked than you'd expect in so unaffected a setting - lots of careful splodges and streaks of sauce in the house-cured salmon with a saffron-rich parsnip purée, crisps and salmon beignets, or the roast quail breast and quail leg Kiev, with a summery smash of broad beans, olives and tomatoes. When they nail it, they really nail it, as with the fried Tuross oysters paired with house-made black pudding. The warmth in the service is palpable, and the value is exceptional.
Let us recommend the Bower if you're staying in these parts. It's neither the sizzle of Bannisters nor the deeply eco-focused operation that is Paperbark Camp but a well-spaced group of fairly modern-looking self-contained B & B-style cottages in the bush just outside Broulee, the favourite beach of this neck of the woods. It's just the place to kick back, listen to the kookaburras, magpies, bellbirds and possums, and maybe crack a frosty Tooheys Old - just for old times' sake.