Dining review: Customs House, Newcastle

Picture perfect: Diners on the verandah at Customs House in Newcastle East. Pictures: Simone De Peak
Picture perfect: Diners on the verandah at Customs House in Newcastle East. Pictures: Simone De Peak

IN a city full of iconic buildings, Customs House is one of Newcastle's most recognisable and most beautiful. This heritage-listed building, on the corner of Bond and Watt Street, Newcastle East, stands as a timeless relic of our city's bustling past (it once housed the Australian Customs offices), and a timely reminder of an era devoid of prefab constructions and full of aspiration for a bright future to come.

Today, the ornate sandstone and brickwork curves, giant timber doors and arched windows of Customs House Hotel offers a spot to relax outside in the sun near the water by day, and a place to eat, drink and unwind with family and friends by night.

Inside, the hotel is divided up by a series of large rooms laid out in an L shape, with a bar that runs almost the entire length of the building. It's stocked with plenty of bottles to tempt you away from temperance, some of which are better by themselves and others that are better when combined, like, for example, a glass of Hunter Valley semillon, or, an endlessly refreshing mojito, made with white rum, mint, soda, fresh lime juice and crushed ice. There's a good selection of bottled beers and more than a few on tap too. There's plenty of soft drinks, juices, tea and coffee to satisfy anyone's preferences.

In the restaurant, there's an antique mirror that takes up most of one wall and reflects back, through aged black cracks, wide arching timber framed windows and art-deco era advertisements that hang on apricot-coloured walls throughout two separate sections of the dining room. Timber floorboards in one section, and a red carpet floor in the other features a pattern of tiny gold fleur-de-lis, which adds to the subtle European theme of the restaurant.

The kitchen is led by head chef Chris Coolahan who has written a broad Mediterranean-styled menu that features a lot of warm and spicy flavours in many of the dishes, such as the roasted butternut pumpkin salad and the casarecce pasta with cherry tomatoes, basil pesto, buffalo mozzarella and sourdough crumbs. There are pub favourites too, like beer-battered fish and hand-cut chips, and steaks cooked to order. The restaurant is open from noon. Besides the a la carte menu, snacks are available all day (mixed marinated olives, hommus dips, spicy fried chicken wings, sweet potato chips, burgers and more). 

For dinner, on this particular occasion, my dining associate and I enjoy three courses in the Customs House Hotel restaurant that includes a shared entrée and dessert, wine and individual mains.

Baked Buffalo Mozzarella Wrapped in Prosciutto.

Baked Buffalo Mozzarella Wrapped in Prosciutto.

We start with a plate cured hiramasa kingfish with fennel, avocado, pickled cucumber, capers and citrus. The fish is fresh and completely absent of that “fishy” smell that tends to put most people off eating seafood. Thin slices of pale pink hiramasa (otherwise known as yellowtail amberjack) are stacked beneath a shredded garden of greens, chunks of ripe avocado, fennel and cucumber, and dotted with plenty of olive green capers that adds a mild saltiness to the delicately acidic flavours of the kingfish. It's a refreshing entrée that pairs well with a glass of Tyrrell's 2010 Stevens semillon.

Beautiful: The Customs House bar runs nearly the length of the building.

Beautiful: The Customs House bar runs nearly the length of the building.

The wait time between courses is minimal. In truth, it's a little too quick, which is not to say I don't like fast food. Only, that I prefer speed to be a feature of the drive-thru rather than a Saturday night dining experience.

For our mains my dining associate has the potato gnocchi in a wagyu brisket ragu with parsley that's dusted with finely shredded Parmesan cheese. The gnocchi is a little starchy, which distracts from the hearty flavours of the slow-cooked wagyu brisket that soaks in a deliciously rich beef stock with tomatoes and other wintery vegetables.

Meanwhile, I breathe in deep and smell the distinctive Moroccan spices and other exotic fragrances steaming off my braised lamb shoulder with roast carrots, mixed grains and yoghurt. The lamb is soft and succulent, full of warm and comforting Mediterranean flavours. So are the carrots, with their deliciously crispy caramelised tips. The mixed grains consist of soft and fluffy couscous, al dente cooked brown rice and other whole grains that add a wonderful textual element  that's a real pleasure to eat.

For dessert, we share a vanilla bean crème brûlée with biscotti. It's nice, but not great, and a little store-bought in both flavour and texture. Next time, I'm going to insist we choose the rhubarb and apple crumble!

Iconic: Customs House is an architectural landmark and popular bar and restaurant.

Iconic: Customs House is an architectural landmark and popular bar and restaurant.

The restaurant at Customs House Hotel serves up more-than-decent pub grub food and fare in a beautiful and historic building that's casual and approachable with enough offerings to satisfy anyone's hunger pains.

  • What: Customs House Hotel
  • Where: 1 Bond St, Newcastle / customshouse.com.au. 4925 2585
  • Owner: Gabrielle McCabe
  • Drinks: Beer, Wine, Cocktails, etc
  • Hours: Mon-Sat: 12pm-Late / Sun: 12pm-7pm (Restaurant: 6pm-9pm)
  • Vegetarian: Yes
  • Bottom Line: $130 for two, with drinks
  • Wheelchair Access: Yes (via car park entrance)
  • Do Try: Hiramasa Kingfish, Braised Lamb Shoulder