February 22, 2011

Saint Peter’s restaurant. Photo: Eddie Jim

Chef Maurice Esposito was banging on about sustainable seafood long before it became a hot-button issue.

KNOWING how your dinner died isn’t incompatible with enjoying it. It might even be a flavour enhancer to know the slab of protein on your plate led a happy life of simple pleasures before being sent into that good night with a quick, painless and unexpected spike to the head. Gruesome? Deal with it. And if you’re thinking this all sounds tangential to the task at hand, ike-jime, as the brain-spiking of seafood is also known, is also supposed to make it taste better. Case closed.

It isn’t necessary to know it’s the preferred method at Saint Peter’s. They don’t go waving it in diners’ faces — the information is on the website. But amid a torrent of platitudes about ethics and sustainability, eating out still remains very much a case of caveat emptor. It’s good to find an operator you can trust.

Chef Maurice Esposito was banging on about sustainable seafood long before it became a hot-button issue, even though you could argue he inherited the aquatic mantle after taking over Carlton seafood institution Toofey’s from Michael Bacash. He’s made it his own, eventually dropping the Toofey’s bit and now adding this, his second restaurant. An ethical empire beckons.

Named for the patron saint of fishermen, Saint Peter’s is clearly related to the Carlton alma mater. It has the same Italian accent to the modern, beautifully presented, not over-fussed food that’s become his trademark. Saint Peter’s opened towards the end of last year and like all restaurants in their early days, it’s a work in progress while Esposito and his unflappably professional floor manager, Mariano Massara, get a taste for the market.

It feels like a restaurant that’s been there far longer — testament to its assimilation into the city’s dining landscape — but, nonetheless, they’re possibly playing it a bit safe.

The ground-floor dining area (there’s an upstairs too, which I haven’t eaten in) has style in spades — a terrazzo floor, comfortable chairs and an aged patina on the mirrors behind the cool wooden bar — but the white table linen greeting people after they walk down the alleyway past the commissioned graffiti is a little jarring. It’s perhaps too formal for the hybrid-bar personality but the starters go some way to lightening things.

This snacky list of comestibles is the biggest point of departure between Esposito and Saint Peter’s, two operations with more similarities than differences. Seafood and frying go naturally together so it’s a good place to destroy a couple of Calabrian-style sardines — thickly crumbed and pan-fried — which at $2 a pop isn’t much of a challenge.

There are oysters shucked to order, naturally, but it’s not the season so it’s perfectly acceptable to order one of the jumbo Smoky Bay oysters from WA ($5), which are dunked in semolina batter and fried to a creamy-crunchy end.

Zucchini flowers in a delicate beer batter have been stuffed with a surprisingly subtle mousse of smoked eel ($7) and, on the meatier side of things, an elegant little number comprising soft discs of venison carpaccio ($6) is crowned with the well-judged astringency of pickled mushrooms.

The wine list adapts well to the mix-and-match approach and the challenges presented by a seafood focus. Going by the glass (or half- bottle) is encouraged by an engaging mix of local and Italian drops.

The starters have a real style to them. I seem to remember from Esposito something very similar to the mud crab salad ($22), the Northern Territory crab bound in a garlic mayonnaise with green apple and avocado, spinach puree pooling around the edges of a dish that works with the crab’s subtle flavour.

I’m also a fan of what he can do with pasta and risotto. His gnocchi ($24/$35) rockets to the top of the league: small rectangles blessed with the ethereal nature of all good members of their species, with generous bits of Southern Rock lobster and a terracotta-coloured crustacean reduction that picks up the acidity of cherry tomatoes. The cheer squad put away the pom-poms for the yabby gyoza ($20/$32), however, which looked gorgeous with beetroot and pickled cucumber but suffered from a thick, claggy casing.

It’s no news that Esposito is a talented seafood chef, an attribute rarer than it might sound. He has a real flair with fish. He doesn’t overcomplicate things and, most importantly, he knows when a dish is done.

Take his signature fish, the John Dory ($38), which arrives cooked to an almost concerning exterior of golden brown but the flesh remaining perfect and white. It comes with a muddle of picked mud crab and radish, some sticks of asparagus and a stunning, subtly flavoured, mayonnaise with a vermouth kicker bringing it all together. A dish to convert the most stubborn fish sceptic.

He’s bravely broken with history to ditch the beer-battered fish and chips that’s a staple at Esposito, but the city location demands steak — grass-fed, with a potato rosti and red wine jus ($36). It’s one of several dishes that are no mere afterthoughts for the meat-eating crowd.

At the sweet end of the meal, a strawberry and almond shortcrust tart ($20) is baked to order but the star of the show is a stunning pistachio ice-cream.

The biggest difference between Esposito and Saint Peter’s is geography rather than attitude but it’s a welcome addition to the CBD, which, for all its dining diversity, has lacked a seafood specialist.

Saint Peter doubles as the patron saint of longevity so hopefully the Catholics are right and he’s guarding the future of the oceans. He ought also to spare a thought for his namesake restaurant. Whether it’s an environmental or a stomach-driven concern, Saint Peter’s deserves to be here for a long time.

Maurice Esposito’s wife, Hilary McNevin, is a contributor toThe Age.