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Back in biz

Most restaurants in WA are consigned to restaurant ‘strips’ or shopping centres. This is a consequence of local authority zonings as much as anything, which effectively banish neighbourhood restaurants from a residential setting.

We are the poorer for it. In Europe the corner restaurant sits beside the corner shop, surrounded by houses and apartments and is a focus for neighbourhood life. It is a commun-ity place; an extension of the family dining table, where one can meet friends and family, eat good food and share wine together.

That’s the nice and immediate feel of the Freshwater Café & Restaurant in Claremont. It sits alone among Victoria Avenue’s gracious riverside houses and apartments, imbuing it with a comfortable, local feel.

Freshwater is the re-badged San Lorenzo. The restaurant, once hugely popular with Perth’s demimonde, has been languishing for most of the 90s with a succession of owners failing to make their mark, and presumably any profit.

Dennis Hagger, late of the Haggers restaurants in Melbourne and Perth, is the new chief stove jock – although he’s so often in the dining room, one presumes his role is at the executive end of the brigade pecking order. (Note to Dennis: ditch the grubby kitchen apron before coming in to the dining room. It’s not a good look).

Owner Lindsay Quaan is looking after the business end of Freshwater.

Freshwater is good. The food is hardly cutting edge, but it’s plain, honest, well-cooked and well priced. In fact its unassuming style is at the heart of its success. For the first time since Red Bond and her yowling retinue of fab femmes took their business elsewhere, 23 Victoria Avenue is seriously back in business.

An entrée of seafood linguini ($16/$22) was right on the money. The pasta was fresh and particularly good. The chef showed admirable restraint, simply tossing the drained pasta with pan cooked prawns, vongolet, mussels, a few fish pieces, oil, a small dob of butter and pars-ley. The addition of semi-sun dried tomatoes was unnecessary – an ingredient too many. The dish was plain, simple and enjoyable.

Likewise the hand made sausages with green tomato chutney ($12/$16) was straightforward simplicity – three hand formed skinless snags sitting atop a spicy warm chutney based on tomato and onion. A dollop of an sweet catering pack mustard detracted from the otherwise fine flavours of the sausage and chutney. Mustard aside, the theme with this dish was of plain, well-cooked food made on exemplary ingredients.

For mains, the fish special, Atlantic salmon in white sauce with mint ($21) was the only misjudged dish of the evening. Teaming fresh mint leaves with salmon was a daring move, which worked better than expected. The fish was (under) cooked perfectly and was fresh and flavoursome. It was let down by a too thick, floury béchamel, Perhaps a beurre blanc would have provided the lighter touch the salmon demanded. It was plated up with a carapace of flat pasta sheets atop the salmon: Unconventional, but it added welcome texture and interest to the dish.

The other main, calves liver with fried onions, mash and crispy pancetta ($12/$16) was about as simple as these bistro style favourites get, and it was cooked perfectly. The liver was pink at its core and chargrilled on the surface The strong, smoky barbecue flavours were a terrific counterpoint to the melt-in-the-mouth richness of the liver. The crisped pancetta added a salty zing to the dish. Both the mash and the onions were first rate. Expertly cooked comfort food.

The tiramisu ($7) was one of the best, booziest and freshest I have eaten, and a raspberry soufflé ($8) was silky, gossamer fine and superbly timed. It was served with a ball of toffee ice cream which had too much flavour for the delicate soufflé. A plain vanilla bean ice cream would have been better.

The wine list is a standard grab bag of favourites, in tune with the casual dining style of Freshwater. Choices by the glass are frustratingly meagre. (I know I go on a bit about the King Street Café, but surely if it can provide more than sixty quality wines by the glass, other restaurants can at least have a crack at something more than mere tokenism).

Freshwater Café & Restaurant is great. It has a cosseting embrace, and a ‘neighbourhood restaurant’ ambience – evidenced by the comforting mix of families, locals, older couples and, young lovers dining on the evening of this review. Freshwater serves well-made, modern but unpretentious food. The service is warm. The experience and the food are perfectly pitched between casual café style and more sophisticated fine dining.

After too many years in the wilderness, the Quaan/Hagger team have put this very special neighbourhood restaurant back in the land of the living.

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