Whole barbecued scampi
IMAGES MAGGIE BUFE
In the late 1990s, chefs went mad for smears and swirls on large white plates.
A dollop of squid ink or vibrant beetroot purée, say, that the chef would drag a spoon through to create something artistic.
Some considered it experimental, others an accident on a plate.
Either way, it’s a fad that’s largely absent from restaurant plates today – except at Customs House, where smears, swirls, dollops and drizzles abound.
A lopsided-smile smear of sticky sweet caramalised onion purée finishes at the meaty end of a whopping 400-gram rib eye on the bone.
An inky-black sauce nero is painted like a landing strip, its centre marked by two small cutlets of yellowfin tuna and brightened either side by baby beets and kipfler potato disks.
The strip is so thinly coated it dries by the time it hits the table, leaving little flavour distribution to the dish. It could have used another lacquer. The tuna, less time on the grill.
Even dessert gets an arty treatment with nicely balanced Grand Marnier strawberries growing a vibrant red liquid tail that points across the plate to an airy white and dark Belgian chocolate quenelle.
I suspect heavy-handed drizzling turned to pouring on the scampi entrée, the rich and buttery beurre blanc sauce pooling on the plate and turning dull brown as it mingled with touches of balsamic.
Four halves of scampi are kept wonderfully simple, lightly grilled, and taste as if they’d jumped straight from the ocean. They’re stacked teepee style over a mound of cold endive leaves, the salad soon wilted from the heat of the sauce and the scampi. Enough said.
Customs House is steered by seasoned restaurateurs and husband-and-wife duo Jamal and Val Muhor. Together they’re responsible for Geelong’s Jamal’s La Plaza Coffee Shop and Family Restaurant, La Taverna Italian Restaurant and Fishbowl, which they still own and operate.
Teaming with son Daniel and enlisting the interior design strength of his partner, Natalie Spagnardi, they opened Customs House in March.
Fitting finale: Vanilla crème brulée with bread-and-milk ice-cream.
Positioned in the basement of the waterfront-facing circa 1856 Customs House, the restaurant feels grand.
Originally used to store contraband confiscated from the port, the bones are heavy with history.
It’s the details that add to the appeal now – sliding glass doors framed by a sweeping archway on entry, lamplight on each table, chesterfields in the lounge area and flourishes of silver service.
Outside, you could kick a football the length of the rectangle of lawn leading to the waterfront.
Wonderfully, the attached outdoor dining space, although large, does little to distract from the majesty of the building. I do love a good heritage building.
At eight months old, Customs House should be considered a wild success if bums on seats on a Saturday night are any indication.
It’s pulsating and, refreshingly, the crisp shirt-clad wait staff aren’t flustered in the slightest.
Our table isn’t ready, even though we’re 30 minutes late, so we’re steered in the direction of the plush and oh-so-romantic lounge and wine bar area where I dutifully flop into a leather armchair to study the wine list. It’s good.
There are more than 130 wines on the list, with 25 by the glass and a heavy focus on local wines – and why wouldn’t you? The Geelong/Bellarine area has some cracking wines.
Spanish, Argentinian and Austrian wine pop out when needed, while the bubbles section is impressive and French-heavy.
Seated not long after, I’m surprised to note the menu offers a choice of either two courses for $65 per person or three for $80.
“No a la carte menu?” I query.
“Not on Friday or Saturday nights,” I’m told.
That might have been nice to know when booking.
I can understand restaurateurs not wanting customers sitting on a glass of wine and a risotto for hours on the busiest nights of the week, but any way you look at it, it’s a pricey two courses.
Add an extra $5 if you order either the 300-gram eye fillet or the 400-gram rib eye from the grill section, and $8 for sides. It’s a decent mark-up for the same a la carte menu served mid-week.
A golden crème brulée boasting a cracking exterior and a thick, creamy inside finishes the evening.
A delicate scoop of milk-and-bread ice-cream is surprisingly refreshing and a fitting finale surrounded by such an elegant, historic space.
Customs House Restaurant and Wine Bar
57-59 Brougham Street, Geelong
Cuisine \ Modern Australian
Owner \ Daniel, Jamal and Val Muhor
Prices \ Lunch $15-25; mains $32-$42; desserts $16-$22
Open \ Mon-Sat 11.30am-late, Sun 11.30am-3pm
Phone \ 5246 6500
The verdict \ Worth a look
Low-slung ceilings and stately stone archways meld with wooden floors and dim lighting to create an intimate moody space. It’s a rabbit warren of stone rooms all dressed with a grand air to suit the Victorian era of the building.
The wine lounge parked at one end begs for cognac sipping and cigar smoking (if only).
It’s crowned by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stocked with classics, a fireplace, chandeliers and a view of the wine stock.
The partially open kitchen is blinding in comparison to soft candlelight but bright wait staff make a welcome distraction.