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 two); desserts, $14
Chefs: Rodney Rae and Marc Peterson
Wines: Small but interesting 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
It's a balmy evening, the moon is rising and there is a blessed lack of mosquitoes. Where better to be than on the Newcastle marina indulging in a bit of boat and apartment envy and anticipating the arrival of a well-made Clare Valley riesling to complement some equally well-crafted food.
With chefs in Newcastle changing places faster than deck chairs on the Titanic, it's comforting to find that though the kitchen team at rocksalt has changed slightly, the skills and consistency of the cooking remain.
Sometimes the service can be a little unco-ordinated but even a repeatedly unmet request for water can't take away from the lightness of silky gnocchi or the earthy flavours of mixed wild mushrooms bathed in sage and truffle-infused browned butter. This is a classic combination and one that succeeds every time.
Put fresh sardines on a menu and they will win my vote. Even confirmed tinned sardine haters will be seduced by the punchy but not fishy flavour of two shiny skinned butterflied fillets paired with a perfectly poached egg, a piquant caponata and a sprinkling of tiny crisp capers.
Although the menu concedes an occasional nod to confirmed carnivores (a chicken entree and an Angus sirloin main) the theme here is firmly fishy. Tonight you can't do much better than choose the special of crisp-skinned Blue Eye with caviar-dotted oyster custard, al dente micro vegetables and a foamed fennel and oyster nage (seafood broth). It may evoke MasterChef but every component is perfectly executed and combined in a dish which is perfectly balanced in texture and flavour.
One main that can't be dropped from the menu is the twice-cooked octopus on a tomato tarte tatin with sweet fennel puree and a ligurian olive tapenade. Tonight the octopus is firm but yielding easily to the tooth. The tomatoes have caramelised to a rich, deep colour, the pastry is crisp but light, and the fennel puree has been boosted by finely sliced fennel folded through. The robust tapenade confirms this dish's Mediterranean roots and a crown of watercress provides a fresh lift.
The dessert list offers a creme brulee, butterscotch ice-cream meringue, citrus tartlet, affogato with Frangelico and a luscious chocolate wedge. There is even a gorgonzola cheese with wild honey drizzle and fresh pear.
I can't resist the deconstructed baklava. Instead of the usual super sweet pastry dripping in honey, layers of filo and almond, walnut and pistachio crumbs have been shaped in a tartlet case with a disc of honey-flavoured parfait (ice-cream that hasn't been churned) in the centre. More nut crumbs have been scattered around the plate and piled on the parfait and the whole drizzled with honey.
With a menu firmly influenced by the Mediterranean and a suitably nautical outlook complete with boats bobbing on a marina, wheeling seagulls and cooling breezes, it seems rocksalt has found the perfect formula.