It’s a blustery, rainy night and we have to make a dash up Henderson Parade from our car to the sanctuary of the Merewether Surfhouse. I’ve always associated the Surfhouse with warm balmy days overlooking the ocean, but as we discover, it’s actually quite cosy on grey autumn evenings too.
We stop for a drink in the bar before dinner. It’s full of happy Friday punters. At our booking time, we head into the dining room. Despite being bordered by glass windows on two sides, the space is glowing with (real) candles and warmth and we are shown to our table in the corner overlooking the ocean. It’s been a while since I ate here, so I can’t remember if the room-length bench table running along the ocean front was always part of the space. Regardless, it’s a great idea and works perfectly for groups of two – private and picturesque. The sun has set and it’s black, but we can still see the angry sea lashing the beach below.
This is the setting in which renowned Hunter chef Lesley Taylor now finds herself. The celebrated chef has left landlubbing Lambton and headed for the coast. Her influence on the new menu is sophisticated and tasteful, without being pretentious. It’s food on par with the stunning surroundings.
The menu is seasonal and showcases Lesley’s French-influenced strengths, not on just the traditional dishes such as confit duck with sarladaise potato or a fatty piece of pork belly with cromesquis; there is a delicateness to everything, a finesse from the vegetables to the steaks.
Fittingly, there is ample seafood on the menu, but also plenty to pay homage to the dining room’s former grill-house focus. Seared scallops and pressed pork hock with watermelon kimchi takes the best flavours of summer and blends them with the earthiness of autumn; the kimchi encapsulating the lingering memories of dribbly melon eaten by the baths below.
In this weather, a bowl full of handmade gnocchi is creamy and comforting. The pillows have the perfect tooth feel – not floury, not tough, not soggy. They are sweet and starchy. Tossed with sautéed mushrooms and pumpkin, it manages to stay an oil-free zone so as not to overwhelm the elements. There are hits of heady truffle and freshness from microherbs. It’s so very good.
A king prawn entree also makes use of these perfect pillows. The prawns are firm and flavoursome and plentiful, and cut into bite-sized pieces. They sit among the gnocchi in a delicate savoury barely-there bisque that holds it all together and clings to each bite. I know entrees are coated in hunger sauce so they always seem to taste better than mains, but these were so yummy.
Choosing a main is difficult, but it’s hard to go past the surf and turf at a seaside eatery. But there’s no steak with prawns on top here. Chef Taylor-style is a piece of wood-grilled market fish (it’s swordfish tonight) sitting atop a rich oxtail ragout with mushrooms and a cheesy potato foam. The swordfish stays slightly crusty on the outside and moist on the inside and the turf is hearty and saucy. A roulade of chicken is full of flavour and soft, but with bite. Additional popcorn chicken is fun and textural and the slice of beetroot and sweet potato galette paired with confit carrot adds a root vegetable earthiness to the plate.
There’s room for a dessert to share…just. The deconstructed lemon meringue has tufts of not-too-sweet-not-too-sour curd alongside plumes of coconut cream. I couldn’t detect the zing of the jalapeño soaked pineapple, but the other flavours stood on their own. A berry coulis adds more tartness to the plate, while shortbread crumbs provide that wonderful buttery mouthfeel.
The wine list features predominantly Australian and New Zealand drops and there are plenty of other options in the form of beer and cocktails. Service is attentive and knowledgeable.
It’s full and jovial for a rainy Friday night. Conversations are relaxed and flow. The food is a joy to look at and even better to eat. It’s the new Lesley Taylor, but with all the maturity garnered from years in the kitchen.
- What: Lesley Taylor and Merewether Surfhouse
- Contact: surfhouse,com.au; 4918 0000
- Hours: Dinner Wed-Sat, lunch Sun.
- Head chef: Lesley Taylor
- Take note: Group menus for 12+ people.
- Bottom line: Entrees $19-26; mains $36-$42; dessert $15.
- Must try: Surf and turf; the gnocchi.