Stillwater River Café / Ritchie’s Mill, 2 Bridge Road, Launceston, TAS 7250 / Open 7 days Brunch and Tuesday – Saturday Dinner (winter can be shorter, so check) / Ph: 03 6331 4153 / $$$ / www.stillwater.net.au
Like ducks on water, Stillwater looks smooth on the surface, but there’s legs paddling like crazy underneath…
Lucky Tasmania. Lucky Launceston. This tiny state has so much happening in the food world at the moment, we’re spoilt for choice. But let’s not take for granted these guys at the top who hold the bar high. The standards they keep are the sum of a squillion parts, all moving like clockwork. That is a huge feat.
And to stay at the top, as they do, takes so much perseverance and hard work, I doubt anyone not in the industry would quite get it. But this is a celebration. Of one of those restaurants that motor on, and just keep getting better. Stillwater.
A lovely name for an old 1830s mill that houses a gallery, a providore and right on the bottom level, a restaurant that is among the best. Craig Will, a part owner and executive chef, of Stillwater and sister restaurant, Black Cow, is not a blow in, but a local guy who counts among his mentors, Paul Foreman, a chef I respect and interviewed not long ago.
Making old new again.
And because it wasn’t purpose built, the restaurant itself was a difficult transformation. (And with so many purpose built restaurants you just have to say, WTF? There’s no excuse getting things so wrong!). But good use has been made of some of the quirkier parts of the design, so it flows. The interior is all dark wood, polished with some bright accents of red that lift and give the room a modern, architectural feel.
We were there at night, and the lighting was dim but adequate, and the ambience warm, inviting. Service? Impeccable. Our waiter knew what she was about, and delivered. So what to order? Oh if only we’d had more time. The ‘Chef’s Five Course Menu’ at $125 a head or matched with wines at $195, would have been marvelous, but this was a working night, so we pretty much had to eat and run.
Next time. But we ordered: the southern fried Tasmanian quail, half bird, in buttermilk with an umeboshi dressing. The umeboshi, a Japanese pickled plum, were not really my cup of tea when I lived in Japan, but here, in a delicious salty, sweet sour dressing that went oh, so well with the lightly crumbed and perfectly fried quail was incredible. And at $10??? Bargain!
My dining companion, PK, tried the braised and grilled Tasmanian octopus, served with pickled fennel and romesco. Light, perfectly cooked, and with the sharp balance of the pickle, the octopus was the star. $14.50? Again, bargain.
PK headed next for the roast duck breast, young beetroot, pearl barley, yellow turnip and slow-cooked quince. $45. A generous portion of perfectly cooked breast, with crisp skin, and wonderful, earthy root vegetables lifted to another level with sharp, sweet quince. I almost expected a runcible spoon to appear, feeling very like the owl and the pussycat in a pea-green boat. Happy, dining on quince.
I went for the wallaby, and my photo does not really do this justice. It was topside, with grilled broccolini, roasted macadamia, kohlrabi and smoked marrow sauce. $44. Yes, another absolutely perfect dish.
The smoked marrow a wonderful addition to rare, tender and flavoursome meat and kohlrabi providing a light crunch along with the broccolini. The nuts sprinkled on top gave the final sweet nutty palate pleasing fillip that was the signature of every dish.
We couldn’t even stay for dessert, though I would have struggled. The wallaby was a big serve. And it’s so gratifying to see a restaurant serve mains that are complete, well thought through, with no need for sides. Oh, the sides are there, if we must have them, but for me, not necessary.
The bill came with a couple of very pleasant matcha cakes – a delicious little finish to a pretty much perfect meal. There’s obviously a Japanese thread running through the kitchen, and a deft blending of styles and cuisines.
We tried a glass of the Pirie Brut, $14.50, and Jansz Premium Rosé, $13.50, and a Velo Pinot Gris, at $14 from the Tamar. The bubbles delivered, but the Velo? Not a huge fan. A bit oily, and lacking a depth of fruit that I like to see in a Pinot Gris. But, that’s just my take. I prefer the Chartley any day, or the Milton, but at $63 a bottle? That’s getting up there. And not available by the glass.
The wine list? Award winning, it’s enormous, and comes with a spiel about Tasmanian wines and regions by Jim Welsh, Head Sommelier and co-owner. The prices range from reasonable to ‘cheeky top shelf’, with some interesting cocktails at $22 for good measure.
We left feeling sated, happy, and… better about the world. We weren’t ushered out, but this time, I didn’t mind – sometimes that can be, well, awkward. We looked back at the mill, and it looks smart and friendly. Just how it should.
The thing is, do locals save up this restaurant for a ‘special’ night out? I would hope not. Stillwater is one restaurant I’d like to see on everyone’s list when you just feel like great food in pleasant surroundings, with strong, professional service. For me, it’s up there.