Will travel for food: LSJ ventures to the NSW south coast for Rick Stein’s world-famous fish and a night at charming boutique hotel Bannisters by the Sea.
Some say the greatest respect you can show a deceased animal that ends up on your dinner plate is to eat the thing entirely.
Admittedly, animal reverence is not front of mind as my partner and I savage chunks of buttery white flesh from the bones of an Australian snapper, stripping the carcass skeleton-naked on our table at Rick Stein’s restaurant at Bannisters in Mollymook. But – we tell ourselves – it might help justify the carnage ensuing.
Having demolished the flaky torso, my partner – whose seafood vocabulary has only recently expanded beyond a heavily battered takeaway – is now ogling unconventional nooks of the specimen.
“There’s some left in the cheekbones!” he exclaims, ploughing his fork tip into its gaping jaw.
The flesh has a moreish umami flavour, thanks to a Chinese-inspired sauce featuring soy, ginger, sesame oil, and textured with popping crisps of garlic and shallots. It is considered good luck to devour the entire head of a fish in Asian cultures. And like the seagulls squawking for chips on the rocks of Mollymook headland, we are here for it.
This is what happens when British seafood legend Rick Stein has his way with produce from NSW’s pristine south coast and serves it to lockdown-starved city folk. Diners lose their minds, manners, and a good whack of their pay cheques for it. Many drive hundreds of kilometres to try his signature dishes – among them, a creamy, soul-embracing fish pie, Eden Mussels in zesty yellow curry, and supple sashimi just hours out of the Pacific.
We have been lured three hours south from Sydney, while neighbours at socially distanced tables have taken the bait from Canberra and the Southern Highlands. We’re all starving for upscale dining experiences after months of spag bol and Uber Eats under varying degrees of lockdown. Plus, destination dining at places like Bannisters by the Sea seems an ideal way to trawl NSW out of challenging economic straits.
Stein, who has paired cooking with travel around the world in his popular BBC series Rick Stein’s <insert destination here>, is the ideal man to offer the experience. After four decades as a chef and restaurateur, during which he managed multiple eateries in his coastal hometown of Cornwall in the UK, Stein fell in love with the NSW south coast. He bought the restaurant at boutique luxury hotel Bannisters by the Sea in Mollymook in 2009.
It’s a clever alignment. Bannisters long had a reputation as the only five-star hotel in this nook of the NSW south coast, but Stein’s name ensures the brand’s prestige – and that of the surrounding area – has been catapulted to new heights. Posh Sydneysiders come for the food and stay for the indulgent mini break. Some make it a pitstop along the “humpback highway”, which follows the whales’ migration from Antarctica between June and November.
Getting there from the state capital is straightforward – it’s one long, winding highway from south Sydney through Wollongong and Nowra, then onto the bushy wilderness of the south coast. Readers who spent childhood holidays camping in areas like Jervis Bay or Bendalong should know the journey well. In fact, the only time I contemplate needing a map is when navigating Bannisters’ enormous Collette Dinnigan Penthouse Suite in the dark on a midnight lavatory run. This so-called “room” is the size of a small house, with two bathrooms, an entertainer’s dining room, and a balcony you could park a car on. It’s a stark contrast to my memories of squeezing into generously described “three-man” tents in Jervis Bay as a child.
The Collette Dinnigan is the hotel’s zenith room, but all are generously sized and feel bigger thanks to the minimalist coastal décor. Marble bathtubs with Perrin & Rowe designer tapware are a pleasure to sink sore feet into. White, wood-panelled living spaces splashed with navy stripes create a French Riviera-meets-Hamptons vibe.
Each room boasts a private balcony with soaring 270-degree views across the Pacific, from Mollymook beach to the south and its lesser-known sister Narrawallee to the north. The beauty of Bannisters’ position on the headland between the two is you can step out to your balcony each morning and decide which sandy cove will offer the cleanest conditions (Narrawallee has your best protection from a southerly buster, Mollymook shines under sunny northerlies).
Bannisters’ supreme placement in a popular locale means the hotel doesn’t need to do much to grab attention. It may explain why some young staff lack the chemistry or pizzaz that hotels in tipping countries compete for. But importantly, they nail the basics: perfectly poached eggs in the morning, Allpress coffee, a Rick Stein Semillon Riesling paired with a hot and crunchy fish taco.
The year 2020 has delivered some curve balls to regional tourism, via bushfires and a global pandemic, and we are all learning to cope in the new normal. Bannisters will thrive because it treats holidays with the genius simplicity Rick Stein employs when steaming a whole snapper. All you need is salt water, heat, and ample rest in your own skin.
GET THERE: Bannisters by the Sea is a 3.5-hour drive south from Sydney via the Princes Highway.
STAY THERE: Room prices range between $379 for an Ocean Deluxe, and $819 for the Collette Dinnigan Penthouse per night.