TWENTY-ONE years and still going strong, Paymaster's restaurant occupies a building which goes back 136 years, built just three years after the beautiful Customs House next door, and situated in an area of state heritage significance.
Chefs have come and gone but the passionately committed management remains. The indoor/outdoor ambience of days past, which could be wonderful on a balmy summer evening but not so pleasant when conditions were less than ideal, have been replaced by elegant folding full length windows. You can still enjoy those harbour views without being plagued by pesky insects or a howling wind.
The dinner menu, while not large, has more than enough variety to tempt the most demanding diner, and you'll also find one of the most comprehensive vegetarian menus I have seen in any non-vegetarian restaurant. And it's not all tofu and mixed vegetables either, but has been created with imagination and flair.
It's often the small touches that count when dining out; food that comes on good crockery, sparkling monogrammed glasses, iced water that is topped up discreetly, an interesting wine list, wine by the glass poured at the table, unobtrusive but attentive service; they're all here.
Smoked duck salad ($19.90) could be a good place to start. Slices of supple, pink duck breast are fanned beside an elegant salad of finely shaved fennel and neatly segmented orange; several small, just-cooked beetroot halves strewn here and there complement the orange in providing that earthy sweetness that goes so well with duck. And I just love that fennel/orange combination. Enjoy with a glass of Allandale chardonnay.
Even better is the line caught squid ($19.90), the outside rubbed with smoked paprika, salt and pepper and pleasantly charred, the inside fork tender. And sumac-spiked salad and mint flecked yoghurt reinforce the Middle Eastern accents.
Saffron and squid ink gnocchi is offered as a main ($26.90). Its house-made gnocchi come in two flavours and colours; densely black squid ink, which is a little too bouncy for my liking, and much softer, golden saffron. These are generously scattered with sweet king prawns, pieces of squid and several mussels in their shell. Tangy salsa verde and shaved parmesan complete quite a substantial dish. And you can even order this as a vegetarian version.
Flank steak, aka skirt steak, hanger steak or bavette: Australian chefs are embracing this top-value, flavour-packed "forgotten" cut, long known by chefs in the US and France. When it's Wagyu beef this dish is hard to go past; even better when served medium rare, with charred edge onion rings, garlic mushrooms, grilled cherry tomatoes, potato crisps and creamy potato puree to mop up the sticky red wine jus ($42.90). The suggested match is Yenda Hell Unfiltered Helles lager but Meerea Park shiraz is even better for this non beer drinker.
And to finish? What could be better than a bit of comfort food, a springy, spongy, steamed lemon and rosemary pudding with a scoop of brown sugar ice-cream sitting in a good puddle of lemon anglaise with a sprinkling of candied orange zest on top.
While restaurants and chefs sometimes have an early use-by date it's good to know that an institution like Paymaster's endures, maybe for another 21 years.