SUN sparkling on turquoise water, blue-and-white striped umbrellas shading white-clothed tables, decorated with flowers, on the outside deck; it takes great willpower and incipient hunger pangs to tear your eyes away and give your full attention to the menu in the newly refurbished dining room at The Anchorage Port Stephens.
Gone is the more formal Merretts; in its place a light-filled expanded space named The Galley, offering indoor and outdoor dining overlooking that aforementioned view.
The venue may have changed but Luke Carpenter still heads a kitchen brigade dedicated to providing an innovative menu which makes best use of the local seafood, along with seasonal produce from the surrounding region. Flavours might lean towards an Asian influence but the techniques are all classically based and impeccable.
Sparklingly fresh hiramasa kingfish is presented, ceviche style: translucent petals of yuzu-marinated raw fish arranged along a rectangular plate and sprinkled with fine julienne apple and radish, and cubes of pickled cucumber, with puffed wild rice providing extra crunch ($24).
Contrastingly, the Atlantic salmon rolled in nori then fine pastry is deep fried before being sliced into cylinders of pink (salmon) surrounded by black (nori) and gold (pastry). Soy and ginger dipping sauce continues the Asian theme ($20).
A main of pork belly, skin removed, has been rolled then cooked, confit style, to fall-apart succulence and presented on a bed of vibrant slaw ($39). Three just-cooked grilled scallops balance on the top and a wafer of crisply good crackling leans to one side. A swirl of apple puree is a surprising addition to the more Asian-inspired Nam Jim sauce and chopped peanuts.
Today's market fish is barramundi; the white flesh is moist and sweet, pan fried to provide a good crunchy skin, and perches on a bed of satisfyingly soupy risotto dotted with peas. The preserved lemon spiking the risotto, the risotto itself surrounded by swirls of tapenade, and slices of roast fennel signal a westward deviation towards the Mediterranean and North Africa ($38); fusion at its best with an expert balance of flavours and a fresh New World approach.
A meal which features so much seafood cries out for some good white wine. Glasses of Scarborough chardonnay and Tyrrell's Lost Block Semillon fit the bill perfectly. I just would have liked them to have been poured at the table.
The menu allows for a spectrum of eating experiences; you could make your own degustation from a selection of entrees, or if time is no problem you could go all out with the share plates for two. Slow roast shoulder of lamb with aubergine relish, coriander yoghurt and sweet potato, and beef Wellington with glazed Dutch carrots, potato puree and green beans, both take 30 minutes to prepare and cost $78 (for 2).
Eton mess is the hip dessert de jour; I always think of it as a sort of smashed up pavlova but still delicious. Carpenter has taken the idea one step further and created Rocky Road mess ($17). The pink marshmallows were rather tough but the rest recalls everything you love about Rocky Road; rich chocolate mousse, pearls of berry gel, coconut biscuits and a scattering of peanut praline crumbs.
You might not be staying at the resort but why not take a day out at the Bay and do lunch at Corlette.
What: The Galley, The Anchorage, Corlette Point Road, Corlette; 49842555; anchorageportstephens.com.au.
Chef: Luke Carpenter.
Wines: There is an interesting selection of white and red wine, from the Hunter and other Australian regions, and NZ; 19 by the glass.
Hours: Open seven days, lunch and dinner from 11am to 10pm.
Vegetarian: One entree; one main; * or ** indicates gluten-free possibilities.
Bottom line: Entree, main, dessert for two, about $150 without drinks.
Wheelchair access: Yes.
Do try: Ceviche of hiramasa kingfish, pickled cucumber, apple, radish, yuzu dressing.