Rocksalt road test gets thumbs up

What: rocksalt

Where: Newcastle Marina, 91 Hannell Street, Wickham

Prices: Oysters, 6 for $19.50, 12 for $37.90; entrées, $18.90 (crab assiette for two, $35); mains, $36.90 to $89 (seafood plate for 2); desserts, $14

Chef: Rodney Rae

Wines: Small, mainly local wine list, 15 by the glass

Hours: Lunch daily 11.45am to 3pm; dinner Friday-Saturday 6pm to 9pm

Extras: Breads $8 to $14.90; salads, $12

Vegetarian: Dietary requirements catered for – ask when booking

Bookings: 4961 1676

Bottom line: Entrée, main and dessert, about $140 for two

Wheelchair access: Reasonable

It’s one of those days that calls for comfort food with big flavours, in a cosy room perhaps with a fire; not quite the day to front up to a place better suited to a sunny, summer sojourn.

But we’re here and ready to make the most of it. We find a table inside and marvel at the hardy souls who have just tethered their bicycles and come in out of the rain.

There’s a lot to like about a place that hasn’t increased its prices in more than 12 months, that has kept the same chef since it opened, that serves consistently well cooked fish and shellfish, that sources what is freshest and best in the fish co-op next door, and that matches those fish and shellfish with a well-chosen wine list.

There are just a couple of negatives; rather slow service and the lack of complimentary bread to arrive with the water at the beginning of the meal. The breads on offer are more like small entrées (a comment not confined to rocksalt).

On the other hand, the real entrees should not be shunned. There are some dishes – Boston Bay mussels and pan-seared sardines (when available) come to mind – that can’t be dropped, but the menu changes often enough to satisfy return customers.

If you love corn, as I do, you can’t go past the squid. This is as corny as it comes! Squid pieces have been dusted with polenta and quickly deep fried to retain a satisfying bite. There’s also a puddle of sweet corn puree, and chilli-infused, crunchy cornbread croutons. Splodges of smoked tomato vinaigrette make a robust accompaniment.

Prawn wontons bring an oriental note. Delicate wonton wrappers enclose a chunky prawn filling. Three of these float in a pool of soy and ginger infused, intensely flavoured duck consommé with sliced green onion, coriander leaves and enoki mushrooms giving texture.

Cataplana is a Portuguese seafood dish, similar to a bouillabaisse, popular on the country’s Algarve coast. The full-flavoured seafood broth begs to be soaked up with good bread but, in its absence, the good risotto will have to do. In the centre sits a wedge of crisp-skinned, moist kingfish topped with a springy prawn and surrounded by small, sweet clams.

Even at the risk of repetition I just can’t pass up swordfish. The inspiration comes from further east along the Mediterranean coast – Italy, even Sicily – for this combination of salt (prosciutto), sweet (raisin) and sour (capers) with Puy lentils and tiny croquettes of Jerusalem artichoke providing the carbohydrate. The prosciutto wraps just cooked swordfish fillets which perch on the caper/raisin studded lentils.

Affogato is my partner’s default position on dessert (or is it coffee) but I want to see how they do the apple tarte tatin. A fine disc of buttery puff pastry is topped with finely sliced, darkly caramelised apples which ooze their syrup, and a scoop of house-made burnt butter and cinnamon ice-cream. It all works beautifully.

It wasn’t a mistake coming today. We found comfort food truly worth the name.

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