• John Lethlean 
  • From: 
  • February 08, 2011 

  • Saint Peter’s, 6 Melbourne Place, Melbourne, (03) 9663 9882
    Hours: lunch Mon-Fri; dinner Mon-Sat 
    Typical prices: entrees $19; mains $38; desserts $16
    Summary: classic stuff, but short on innovation
    Like this? Try: Pier, Sydney; Albert Park Hotel, Melbourne
    Rating: 3.5/5

I ONCE went to a renowned Hobart Cantonese for lunch, determined to spend someone else’s money, a cathartic notion. But several things got in the way.

One was the density of diners. There’s something just plain awkward about being half the day’s customer base (my guest was the other). We made a dismal whole. The other was the density of lobsters. “Sorry,” said the host, “we have no lobster. It’s all been exported to Hong Kong.” My bloody crustacean was being enjoyed by some rotter in Wan Chai while I sat in an empty restaurant.

And there you have the great Australian piscatorial paradox. Our great nation might be girt by sea, but it sure ain’t girt by seafood restaurants crammed with great, briny bounty. The export-focused industry baulks at selling “luxury” seafood at local market prices. And because of seafood’s shelf-life, doing it properly means wastage, and the resulting higher costs encourage conservatism. Running a seafood restaurant is the high-wire act of the hospitality circus. Thankfully, it doesn’t stop some trying.

Saint Peter’s is the Melbourne CBD offshoot of Esposito, chef Maurice Esposito’s Carlton seafood restaurant. If you go expecting clear delineation between the progenitor and this new city sibling, though, you’ll be disappointed. For all its rhetoric about sustainability, the message lacks punch on the floor, communicated by neither menu nor waitstaff. And the food style is very similar to what Esposito has done in Carlton the past four years (and at Middle Brighton Baths and Stokehouse before that): a deft, pretty, brushed-with-Italian-brio approach to things that, mostly, come out of the water. That is to say, lovely food, but food that doesn’t rewrite the rules of either cookery or service. The menu is structured traditionally when some of us had expected innovation, a cheeky little brother, not a grown-up twin. For city execs, it’s probably perfect.

For all that, SP’s delivers impeccable classics, both modern and trad. A rich, buttery white wine and garlic base binds quality spaghettini with bug tails, with a garnish of home-grown rocket. The background chilli is polite, but contributes to the conversation. The same rocket sits beneath rustic, crumbed Calabrian-style sardines served with lemon (from a list of “tastes”, cheapish morsels that double as bar food).

More finessed is SP’s take on the inevitable raw/cured kingfish dish, here dubbed a “carpaccio”: nice tiles of flesh layered with mandarin, garlic chips, florets of broccolini and cress, finished with a too-scanty pomegranate dressing and olive oil. As pretty as you could hope for.

Ocean trout is served with fresh horseradish on its crisp skin, a linear trail of small prawns, cauliflower and coral fungus alongside, all tossed in a pan with dolcetto.

Rock flathead fillets on a parsnip puree get a similar treatment, with a strip of wild mushroom slices and calamari pieces following a strip of reduced vin santo. And the restaurant’s namesake John Dory (San Pietro in Italian) also gets the impeccably cooked, naked-fillet approach, with smart running mates: mud crab bound in mayo off to one side with white asparagus and a warm Cinzano Bianco mayonnaise beneath.

It goes without saying all this fish is in perfect condition, cooked exactly. And yes, all the fish choices are defendable, from a sustainability perspective. And the pricing is entirely reasonable, although desserts are up there. Almond pannacotta with a sweet/bitter caramel, almonds and orange zest is terrific, but I’m not so sure about a groin of passionfruit jelly it’s plated with. Flavours clash.

Pressed apple “terrine”, however, with fresh berries, dollops of milk sorbet and a drizzle of caramel is refined, delicate and entirely harmonious. Like the restaurant itself, the dish is professional, aware of contemporary trends but grounded in tradition. Tradition in technique, at least, if not in concept. Oh, for a nation swimming in good seafood restaurants.