Hunky: Pan-seared John Dory.
“You could be anywhere in the world,” says Erica, our waitress, as we scan the glimmering waters of Half Moon Bay and look towards the city skyline on a sultry January night.
Yes, but the jet-skis dive-bombing fishermen’s lines dangling from the pier, the squad of wetsuit-clad swimmers rounding the wreck of Her Majesty’s Victorian Ship Cerberus, the families picnicking on the sand and the dozens of lifesaving Nippers on gaily coloured boards racing in and out from the shore say Oz to me.
It was this view that lured owners Jamie and Erica Helliwell when they arrived in Australia in 2009, after years of working on international cruise ships, intent on spreading the name of a large international coffee chain across Melbourne. They speedily had a change of heart and bought Cerberus Café, a two-storey weatherboard shack beside coloured beach sheds and the Black Rock Yacht Club.
The Cerberus (named after mythological Greek god of the underworld Hades’ three-headed guard dog), a naval battleship launched in 1868 and scuttled 58 years later to form a breakwater, is the undisputed jewel in this glimmering bay. There’s a campaign to preserve the historic wreck, and the Helliwells kept the moniker when they set up their new venture in late 2010.
The 54-seat restaurant is booked out throughout summer (when parking is a bitch) and heavily patronised in winter, helped no doubt by damn reasonable prices, acceptance of tidy beach attire and an accessible, interesting wine list and a kids’ menu with a touch of class. Thanks to chef Barry Madgin, who has been at the helm for two years, the food is more than noteworthy and not, as I feared, inferior to the scenery.
Wellington-born Madgin, who has worked in five-star hotels in Toronto and the south of England and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in Holland, spent time at Fazio’s in Hampton and Six Keys in Beaumaris after arriving in Australia six years ago.
His cooking style contains elements of his classic French training, European influences, bayside sensibility (there’s a certain style of food preferred along Beach Road) and spunky originality. The menu features fewer land-reared options, but I confess we barely considered them anyway.
Instead, we dived straight for a memorable serve of Madgin’s soft-shell crab – a seasonal menu staple that’s often given little more respect than a fried dim sim. Here it’s given a delicate tempura coating and served with an inspired pearl couscous (moghrabieh), lemon, parsley and seaweed salad. The salad, moistened by a delicate parsley purée and given a subtle sesame flavour by the seaweed, justifies the chef’s decision to go without the predictable dipping-sauce accompaniment.
Scallop-and-hapuka fishcakes blitzed other small-plate choices such as confit duck rillettes and beef short ribs. Patties they may have been, but the seafood hadn’t been pulverised and retained flavour and texture, with parsley and potato playing second fiddle. Underneath, a lemon-dressed salsa-cum-salad of avocado, tomato, capsicum and cucumber added liveliness, while a dill-enhanced crème fraiche provided a pleasant savoury nip.
Virtually ignoring sophisticated-sounding offerings of lamb backstrap, eye fillet and pork cutlets on the larger-plates list, we opted for the south-coast John Dory and a rather good nicoise salad from the specials board.Madgin possesses an admirable determination to get his flavour balance just right and he’s willing to procure any ingredient he thinks his dishes need (Canadian clementines when blood oranges aren’t available and Peruvian white asparagus when the perennial in Australia isn’t up to scratch). The pan-seared fish arrived on a long white plate scattered with tatsoi leaves, kipfler potatoes, said white asparagus, and Clementine segments with two charry pieces of honey-marinated grilled fennel and a smear of citrusy aioli.
A kalamansi lime-and-vanilla crème brulée, with cinnamon and sugar-coated beignets, was an inspired finish to this fresh and fishy meal. Other choices included rockmelon, blueberry, blood orange and pomegranate-filled brandy snaps with citrus-hung yoghurt and white chocolate and raspberry panna cotta. The lime (imported in purée form from the Philippines) is one of Madgin’s favourite ingredients, he says. It added a tart, refreshing element to his excellent brulée and the fritters (I’m not much of a fried dough fan) were divine dipped in the puddle of delicate custard.
I find it hard to judge how much of that goodwill was influenced by the glow of the setting sun over water.
Cerberus Beach House, Boat Shed 212,
Half Moon Bay, Black Rock
Cuisine \ Modern European
Owners \ Jamie & Erica Helliwell
Prices \ Small plates $15.50-$19; mains $27.50-$35; desserts $12-$16
Open \ Tuesday to Sunday, noon-late
Phone \ 9533 4028
Summer sky-blue walls and pale, polished-timber floors are the sensibly minimalistic backdrop to the vista-reverent décor at this seaside venue, which has arguably the finest view in Melbourne. There are ivory beams trimmed with fairy lights, beach-themed wall ornaments, jugs of fresh flowers, subtle blue-toned fabric banquettes and mid-brown timber chairs and tables that add warmth, all delivering the concept of a modern beach house to perfection. But no one’s taking a lot of notice – all eyes are drawn to the full wall of windows thrown wide open to reveal the glimmer of the bay beyond.
The Verdict \ Somewhere special