Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I happened to hear that Rick was going to be in-house at Bannisters, Mollymook, for the weekend of my birthday and what could be a better gift for a foodie than a weekend of food and wine with an international chef?

We used to spend the occasional weekend at the lovely Bannisters, however since Rick took over the restaurant, it’s been a little more difficult to secure a room at short notice which is the way I usually decide to do it.  I was keen to get down there to see the place under Ricks influence, and of course meet the man whose food and travel series I enjoy so much, so this was the perfect opportunity.

We started the weekend with a few hours in the spa.  Not a bad way to kick things off.  Later that evening there was a welcome BBQ by the pool bar.  I was surprised to see how large the intimate group of guest was - perhaps 50 or 60 guests -  and how far many guests has travelled to attend, a large number from interstate.  One of the nice things about a famous chef is that they brings guests to an area that would otherwise not visit and the weekend certainly demonstrated that affect.

The south coast of NSW has a bountiful seafood produce including some very fine if small oysters, however there has never been a truly good seafood restaurant.  Admittedly there has been plenty of popular and successful ones, but most experienced a slow death in the 90’s and none have risen to take their place, and more importantly offer the fresh seafood taste we crave today, rather that the cream laden, gratin and garlic flavours of the 80’s and 90’s.  Rick Stein’s coming to the coast was wonderful news and means that we will one day have a number of well trained and experienced seafood chef’s on the coast.  Rick repeated a conversation he had with Neil Perry (Rockpool, Rockpool B&G, Spice Temple), when Neil asked why on earth he would want to open down the coast i.e. in the middle of food nowhere?  Ricks reply was simpy “So I don’t have to compete with people like you” and while that may be true, Rick has always been a location chef rather than a big city chef and we are grateful for that.  So rick, thanks for training our future seafood chef’s and bringing new visitors to the South Coast.

I should add that Rick of course is executive chef or (what’s the French cook/restaurateur term?), not the head chef, and only visits Bannisters six or so times a year.  He bought one of his head chef’s from Padstow to fill that position, the young but capable Julian Lloyd formerly headed the kitchen in Ricks gastro pub, the Cornish Arms in St Merryn. (I am sure they wouldn’t like the phrase but what else is it?  Surely the diners are there for the food not the beer?)

So the next morning, following a tasty breakfast slightly surpassed by the view, we were amongst the first group to attend a food demonstration at Rick’s home just down the road.  About 20 of us were seated while Rick and his young assistant prepared and discussed three seafood dishes.  Rick was as self-depreciating as he is on TV and a genuine character.  There were plenty of matching wines being passed around (like many foodies, Rick loves a drop) at 10am as we sampled the Heinz Seafood Braised in Coconut Milk.  Based on a Balinese spice mix included turmeric, garlic, galangal, ginger, sesame seeds, peanuts (or cashews for those with allergies) which can be found in Far Eastern Odyssey, the mix is ground to a paste in mortar and pestle or small blender.
It should go without saying that Rick is exceptionally knowledgeable about seafood,  but I was pleased to learn that it was not just his native UK and European species he knew so much about, but it extended to US, Australian and Asian (or Far Eastern if you are British) varieties.   Ricks enthusiasm for seafood is genuine, as is his support of sustainable fishing methods and aquaculture.  I love eating fish but I would rather truss a duck or bone a leg of lamb than a fish, so I really found Ricks tips encouraging.  I asked Rick how to select fish to substitute for those in his recipes and he replied that rather than looking for a similar looking fish, look at the type of fish, and substitute those with similar characteristics such as:
1.     1. Flat fish
2.     2. Large fish
3.     3. Shellfish including octopus and calamari
4.    4. Oily fish like mackerel, kingfish and trevally; and       
     5. Round fish, like snapper, blue eye cod, and john dory

For example some useful Australian/UK substitutions are barramundi instead of sea bass and John Dory instead of monk fish.  
In preparation for the next dish we discussed making a good fish stock.   The first tip was never use oily fish, and secondly, to add left-over lobster or blue swimmer crab shells (but not mud crab or mussel shells).  Some fish suggestions for good fish for stock were snapper or John Dory.  The stock is made from the frames and heads after the rest of the fish has been filleted or cooked whole for anther recipe.  Essentially, a subtle fish stock is simply made by simmering bones and fish head, and crustacean shells for about 25 minutes only; removing the bones and heads, then adding the vegetables and continuing to cook.  Skip  the usual addition of carrot and use only ‘white’ vegetables such as fennel, onion, leek and celery.  As it is intended to be a light stock, it does not require the long cooking of other stocks, needed to intensify the flavours.

A beautiful lobster raviolo (large ravioli) filled with a lobster mouseline, was poached in a fish stock, served atop the poached baby spinach leaves, with in a simple white wine sauce and a few basil leaves.  This was matched with a rather retro woody chardonnay which for a non-woody chardonnay lover, was a surprisingly good pairing. 

Banisters’ sommelier is Toby Evans, son of Len Evans, and he professed to being a woody chardonnay lover.  Over the weekend I followed Toby's recommendations and tried a few wine varieties I would otherwise have avoided.  None disappointed and it was a good reminder for me to be as open to alternative wines as I am to new foods and flavours.

That evening we dined in the restaurant and I saw many plates of our demonstration dishes served to eager diners.  Knowing that I would go home and prepare these dishes for myself at least once, I decided to sample some of the others from the restaurant’s menu.  The menu offers a worldly choice of seafood dishes, and a couple of non-seafood one’s.  All are obviously Rick’s and perhaps a little predictable, but executed professionally and well by the kitchen staff.  It’s clear that the young head chef, Julian, is keen to exert his own style and this will probably be a good thing.  Nothing wrong with Rick’s food.  It is all classically based, with adventures into foreign places, much like Rick himself, but some experimentation and departure from these classics will appeal to the more frequent diner.

The front of house staff at Bannisters make a great effort to satisfy the huge demands of the influx of guests.  Like most rural/coastal areas, there is a lack of experienced quality wait staff, and this is evident when things get busy.  The staff however, have a great attitude and genuinely try to the best of their ability, and hopefully a few will decide to stay and become the experienced staff necessary to pass on the skill to the constantly revolving casual staff, most restaurants need to employ to survive.

After a much quieter Sunday breakfast the final group headed off to their demonstration with Rick and co.  We headed north via Milton and Berry  for some good retail and cafes on the way home.

The next week I prepared the final dish Rick demonstrated for us.  This Vietnamese salad featured a lovely smoked trout and a fresh, crunchy, feel good green mango salad.

Rick provided recipe cards but I also came home with a considerable pile of signed books which included all the dishes.  I gave my apprentice chef son a signed copy of Rick Steins Seafood , a veritable bible of seafood preparation, species and recipes and a second copy now sits on my groaning cook book shelf); along with Rick’s non-seafood Coast to Coast, and Far Eastern Odessey.

There was quite a bit of talk about Rick’s BBC food and travel series of course, as they are so popular.  Even my non foodie partner who almost despises cooking shows, will sit down and watch Rick.  So the good news is that there is another series on the way.  Rick had recently completed filming a series in Spain.  He is particularly fond of Spain and Spanish food, and it’s long been one of my priority travel destinations, so I eagerly await this next series (and another visit to Bannisters!).

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