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Fine marriage of seafood

FREMANTLE’S cosy Essex Restaurant has arguably the finest seafood in that city and would rate among the best in the State. A big statement perhaps, but these accolades are well deserved.

This century old, restored limestone cottage is one of the many benefits the port city received for the 1987 America’s Cup challenge.

As an eating place, the Essex has come on magnificently since Paul and Jill Wallen took up the lease. The couple has been involved in wine and food people for much of their lives. Their vast experience came together in marriage and management. They are hands-on restaurateurs and the quality of the place is enhanced by this togetherness.

Of course our rivers and oceans are the farmyards of ingredients for our seafood eateries so all the restaurants start on a level playing field. The essence of the Essex’s success is the man in the kitchen, chef Mark Spencer.

Mark handles seafood with great care, appreciating its delicacy and holding the gentle flavours in esteem. He cooks with a tender feel and his results are a wonderful culinary experience. Many restaurateurs would do well to taste the Essex’s gastronomic offerings.

I had the best fillet of dhufish ($24.50) I have enjoyed for a long time. For a start, the fillet was cut perfectly – 3cm thick at its fullest point. Mark had quietly grilled the luscious local, delicately taking the translucency from it and if anything erring toward the ever-so-slightly undercooked. He had taken the fillet to the beginning of ‘flaking’ as dhufish will.

The menu offers this dish with a cajun spice dust on the fillet but this lord of the Indian Ocean is better served by the second option of the chef’s lemon-butter sauce.

The Essex’s principal courses are priced in the low to mid-$20s. Many restaurants of this ilk have prices at the high end of the $20 scale and breaking into the $30s. Salads and vegetables are extra with a garden salad adding $5, a fine Greek version with an oregano and cucumber dressed with a vinaigrette is $6. For $8, the Essex offers a Julius salad of fresh greens with bacon chips, croutons and oven-roasted tomatoes and wait for it – a Caesar-style dressing.

Enchanting sauces and dips shine from the kitchen. Examples like the strawberry chilli sauce with the cajun dusted calamari ($10.50). I fell in love with the wonderful dish of grilled balmain bug tails with bug ravioli ($13.50 and $24.50). These come served on seared vegetables with a splendid sauce of dijon and semillon.

Remembering the Ord River silver cobbler, which I call Kununurra catfish, I was surprised to hear this was a special de jour at the Essex. It’s only fair I tell this story against myself as I voiced an opinion that this tough fresh water fish was best for cat food. I had eaten it caught fresh and barbecued in the Kimberley and it was dreadful.

Host Paul Wallen disappeared into the kitchen and chef Mark set about proving me completely wrong and he did it well. From the cooking factory came a platter of light, but crispy, deep-fried battered fillets. The chef had answered my critical with a good result – I now know how to cook Kimberley catfish.

Another glass of the best unwooded chardonnay I have seen for a long time restored my dignity. This is a dry white from dear old Mt Barker – the 1999 Patterson’s. It’s a fullflavoured and remarkably complex white considering the limited treatment in the winery. Definitely a food wine, it sat happily with the seafood dishes. Knowing Patterson’s tiny vineyard, the wine is very limited.

Freshly shucked oysters are served with wasabi mayonnaise and a tomato and coriander salsa. Horseradish is a perennial plant native to south eastern Europe and western Asia and is revered by the Japanese who call the fiery mustard-like accompaniment wasabi. It certainly gives a lift to the mayonnaise. Six oysters are $11.50, nine $15.50 and a dozen $19.50.

The Essex is not exclusively a seafood restaurant. I must return for the entrée of twice-baked Kervella goat cheese soufflé ($12.50). This is presented with pesto and drizzled virgin olive oil.

A very competent wine selection is offered. Prices are good for the younger wines – those with lofty appreciation levels and a gold card can select from some outstanding vintages. There is a brace of four Peel Estate shiraz vintages from 1993 to 1996. Similarly, Penfolds Grange is well represented, Orlando Lawsons shiraz and St Hugo from Coonawarra.

There is a comfortable feel, almost intimate mood about this wonderful little restaurant, which makes it perfect for special occasions with small table numbers, perhaps even two. A pleasant cocktail bar greets you and the staff give efficient, friendly service. Parking is ordinary, but that is Fremantle. Do take the local gourmet – he’ll be impressed.

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