23/10/2007 - 22:00

A touch of class at The Essex

23/10/2007 - 22:00
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It may be held in high esteem by many in the hospitality industry, yet The Essex Restaurant remains something of a sleeper business, overshadowed in the headlines by Jackson’s Restaurant, Star Anise, Fraser’s Restaurant, and the former Eminem.

It may be held in high esteem by many in the hospitality industry, yet The Essex Restaurant remains something of a sleeper business, overshadowed in the headlines by Jackson’s Restaurant, Star Anise, Fraser’s Restaurant, and the former Eminem.

Earlier this year, long-time Witch’s Cauldron head chef Tony Humphreys told Gusto that, if he had to take guests to a restaurant in Perth (other than his own), he would take them to The Essex.

“It’s the best restaurant in Fremantle by a long shot,” Mr Humphreys said. “The food is fresh and sensational.”

Stepping inside the modest looking 120-year-old cottage on Essex Street is almost like stepping out of Fremantle and into West Perth.

There are quaint rooms dotted with tables that stretch to the rear, where there’s a 22-seat private dining room.

The tables are dressed with linen, the produce is fresh and presented with care and the manager, John Matheson, has a wealth of experience as he approaches his 50th birthday next year.

There is also a vast number of stories from owner Paul Wallen, who moved to Western Australia 20 years ago following a front-of-house career in London during which he waited tables for actors Michael Caine and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others.

At one point, a restaurant he co-owned called L’Herisson employed a young, up-and-coming chef called Gordon Ramsay, who has since become a celebrity chef and opened a string of successful restaurants in the UK.

But Mr Wallen’s Essex Street restaurant couldn’t be further from the hustle and bustle of London, where he often slept at work after a long-but-fun night serving customers and, later on, drinking expensive wines.

Mr Wallen doesn’t miss the high life, however. He is proud of what he has achieved in his nine years owning and running The Essex with wife, Jill.

Yet, while diners clamour to make a dinner reservation at this acclaimed and Gold Plate-winning restaurant, its lunchtime demands are much softer.

Gusto couldn’t help but think during a lunchtime visit this week that, if The Essex was based in Subiaco, West Perth or the city centre, it would be brimming with lunchtime patrons.

Mr Wallen agrees.

“The big difference is that Fremantle is predominantly blue collar business,” Mr Wallen says.

“The guy on the harbour who owns the fishing trawler business used to be a fisherman and he never lunched, so it is not in their ethos.”

But even if there are only a half a dozen tables booked for lunch, the restaurant doesn’t feel that empty.

That is because while The Essex seats 84 all up, it has a number of rooms for smaller, more intimate groups, allowing Mr Wallen to maintain the ambience throughout.

Diners at lunch or dinner can select from a fairly large menu that, for his part, Mr Wallen thinks needs a trim. But just what to drop is a bone of contention among the family, which includes Mrs Wallen’s son, Noel Friend, and his wife Lisa.

They all have their favourites; the twice-baked Kervella goat cheese souffle ($19.50) for instance, will always stay on the menu, Mr Wallen says.

Mr Friend is in charge of maintaining the menu, which ranges from the souffle to duck breast, to beef fillet and a host of seafood options. He is currently head chef at The Essex, following the departure of Mark Spencer earlier this year.

Mrs Friend works alongside her husband in the kitchen.

Mr Wallen has been in the business in Perth for about 20 years, first working with Jean-Daniel Ichallalene at the former Pierre’s Garden Restaurant in West Perth.

Then, in 1989, he bought his own restaurant in West Perth, Brett’s, but the venture only lasted about 12 months.

“I was young and naïve. Everyone was pulling their heads in and not spending money,” he says.

But experience pays, and Mr Wallen now has running a restaurant down pat, although he acknowledges that the challenges are constant.

Finding quality staff has become difficult, while managing escalating costs is an obvious frustration, he says. But he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I can’t envisage doing anything else,” he says.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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