I’ve previously visited Bryon on three occasions, and each time I’ve managed to miss out on dining at Fins and chef Steve Snow’s highly touted cooking, either because it was booked solid or I was too busy surfing, Blues Festing or boozing. And this year, everyone else has had the same problem – namely because Fins closed shop after a run-in with the Beach Hotel’s new owners, the Van Haandels, best known for their St Kilda dining hotspot, Circa, The Prince. I don’t know the full politics of it all, but apparently Snow had free rent and the new owners didn’t like that very much. Funny that.
Luckily for lovers of the perennial two-hatter and SMH Good Food Guide best regional NSW restaurant, Fins has resurfaced, this time up at Salt Village in Kingscliff, a booming upmarket development that’s a 30-minute drive north of Bryon and 20 minutes south of the Gold Coast. And as luck would have it, the lovely Sarah was singing at the Peppers Salt Resort over the long weekend, the very same weekend that Fins was holding its opening night. Naturally, we turned it into an extended getaway and took the opportunity to check out Snow’s latest restaurant incarnation.
Fortunate for us, we booked on Saturday night, as the scheduled Friday opener was scratched after kitchen equipment was delivered too late to meet the restaurant’s minimum 24 hours of prep and, as he’d tell me later, Snow’s required level of excellence. So we landed right on opening night, and merely had to shuffle across the strip from Peppers to arrive almost on time for our booking. And as usual for an opening night, there were the normal hiccups: menu typos, a blown fuse, and staff running around frenetically due to the fact the tills and reservation system had yet to arrive. The brief moments of madness proved to merely be entertaining, thanks to the commendable composure of the kitchen and floor staff.
Fins is the latest addition to the village food strip, which includes the stylish Asian eatery Mahsuri, the Saltbean Expresso Bar, a daggy IGA mini-supermarket, and the Saltbar Beachbar and Bistro at the end, the latter taking advantage of the sole position facing the surf. In its entirety, Salt Village is a planned luxury development, and is perfectly nice, bright and neat. And at any minute I expected to see a Stepford Wife.
Fins manages to fit in at the schmick Salt, and at the same time evokes a bit more personality. The majority of the dining is held on an outdoor (but covered) wooden deck, while the indoor bar and kitchen is backdropped by a gleaming, wavy wall sculpture. Picture an illuminated white topography map, looking like the mountainous peaks inhabited by the abominable snowman – or in this case, the admirable Snow-man. Luxe, high-backed miscrosuede vanilla chairs add to the pleasure of leisurely dining.
We start off with a crispy soft-shell mud crab, served with a cross-swizzle of yuzu (Japanese citrus) and parsley oil, and it’s nicely fried to a crunch and fresher-tasting than most soft-shell crabs I encounter. We also get a tasting plate of three seafood dishes: fried baccalao balls, a yellowfin tuna sashimi and marinated prawns. The small-but-decadent baccalao balls, aided by what we guess are potatoes and cream, is our favourite. We enjoy the entrees to the tune of, for me, a lively Italian pinot grigio and, for Sarah, a balanced sem-sav, each served in tall, delicate white wine glasses.
For the mains, we split two dishes. A Mauritian sambal arrives served in a flared Royal Porcelain bowl from Thailand, its spicy red sauce coddling one halved Moreton Bay Bug, a couple of mussels, dual prawns, fish chunks and calamari pieces. The calamari is a bit chewy for me, but the rest of the seafood is moist and tender. The sauce is wonderfully delicate and balanced in its flavours and builds up its chilli hit after several bites, even if I would have liked it to have been thicker. Sarah disagrees and thinks the consistency is great. To each his/her own chromosomes.
In opposition to the spicy sambal, we get the simpler, more European ‘Snowy’s Fish’, a thicker slab of Jewfish than I’m used to seeing, but I’m not complaining. It’s tenderly cooked in a smoothened white wine, lemon and parsley sauce, and turns out to be the evening’s real star, demonstrating yet again how simplicity can often be the best approach of all. Its main contender is a bowl of crunchy, golden, handcut chips, which we know we don’t need, we know we won’t finish, but we’re compelled to order anyway. Blissfully cripsy and salty, they are some of the best chips I’ve seen all year. Finally it’s time for dessert, and we do both a safe-but-satisfying trio of chocolates and an intriguing dessert ‘tagine’, whose presentation in a mini tagine seems to be solely for visual effect, but it works, as does the juxtaposition of smooth saffron ice cream against the texture of a lighter-than-expected flourless orange cake.
We’re the last to leave, so we don’t hit the bar, although as the restaurant settles into its new haunt, the mixology station is expected to keep hopping until midnight every evening except Sunday, with tapas running until 11.30pm. Oh, and for the daytime crowd, there’s now a takeaway section at the new Fins, which is a helluva better option than the usual fisho. Just make sure to get in a good swim to make some caloric room for those requisite chips.
Fins Restaurant and Bar, 5/6 Bells Blvd, Salt Village, S. Kingscliff, (02) 6674 4833, http://www.fins.com.au.