Muhammara with Zeally Bay Bakery bread
IMAGES MAGGIE BUFE
I’d hazard a guess that if chef James White swapped Scorched dining room for a backyard tent, people would still make a booking. Why? Because his food is exhilarating, a mix of rustic Middle Eastern dishes catapulted into the New World by clever cooking techniques and crafty flourishes. It’s not over-thought either. Each one of the 19 share dishes on the menu is simply served on brown plates in a manner that says “eat me”, not just “photograph me”.
The roasted red pepper and walnut dip, muhammara, is case in point. A chunky textural delight, bright with lemon juice and labna, it arrives flattened in a perfect circle and crowned with pops of pomegranate, crunchy walnuts and dainty micro-herbs. It works, beautifully slathered on complimentary sticks of sesame-crusted Zeally Bay sourdough with a spirited dukkah made in-house.
A lone, golden salt-cod croquette is another of the smaller dishes. It’s feathery and moist and arrives with a sprinkling of sea salt atop and a thick, lemony aioli that you can’t help but drive the croquette through, formula one style.
Even baked molten haloumi is given White’s pared back and considered treatment. A combination of sweet, juicy raisins and lightly roasted pine nuts spooned atop, slices through the saltiness of the cheese.
It’ll come as no surprise that it can be hard to secure a table at this contemporary restaurant on Torquay’s esplanade. Before purchasing Scorched in 2009, owners White and Vanessa Joachim had built a following at Bellbrae Harvest, where White mixed Asian-inspired dishes into the Middle Eastern mix. The Asian influence has been left behind but the duo’s following has swelled.
Slow-cooked lamb shoulder with fig & freekeh salad
White and Joachim gave the restaurant a good scrub when they first bought it but otherwise haven’t altered the dining room since its inception in 2005. It’s beginning to show. During the day, the décor can look jaded and the colour-palate muted, but glimpses of the ocean and towering Norfolk pines through floor-to-ceiling windows are a welcome distraction.
Joachim heads-up the front of house and I’m yet to see her cheery face wane. She’s instilled equal measures of professionalism, knowledge and fun into the staff; so much so we relinquish all decision-making to our waitress during a pulsating Saturday night service.
We aren’t disappointed.
Ribbons of cured beef bastourma are subtle and butter soft. They’re twisted to form a mini-mountain that covers a salad of heirloom tomatoes, ripped basil and whipped ricotta. It’s a lesson in simplicity that shines.
Pulled from the weightier part of the menu, a salad of roasted cauliflower heads comes tossed through a mix of toasted almonds, currants, and sumac. A generous dollop of tahini yoghurt with sumac crowns the mound and works wonderfully alongside a spicy local pinot noir that lands in my glass soon after.
A tangle of fresh figs, freekeh, ripped parsley and barberry serves as a palate cleanser alongside rich slow-roasted lamb that collapses and shreds under the slightest fork pressure. My only complaint would be that I want more.
Chocolate torte with Persian fairy floss
The fattoush salad is a knock-out. A combination of chopped and brilliantly flavoured tomato, cucumber, parsley and mint, and crushed lavoche for crunch, it is finished with a scattering of sumac and a dressing heavy with lemon. I would return for the salad alone.
Fittingly, desserts are light and bright. There’s a trifle with berries, rosewater labna and jelly; a coconut granita and lime with watermelon and strawberry salad; or a selection of cheeses. But our waitress has a more decadent finale for us.
A slab of unapologetically intense chocolate torte arrives at the table, lifted by a puff of Persian fairy floss and a pretty scattering of pomegranate seeds, pistachios and orange segments. It has a mousse consistency and is surprisingly light, broken by squirts of pomegranate juice from the fat seeds and the zing of citrus.
My dining companion makes a decision when the last of our dessert has been mopped from the plates late on the Saturday night. “We’re going to have to come back for lunch,” he states. Who am I to object? Eat this Scorched, 17 The Esplanade, Torquay Cuisine
Middle Eastern Chef
James White Owners
James White and Vanessa Joachim Prices
share plate $4-$35; desserts $14 Open
Wednesday-Thursday 3-9pm; Friday-Saturday 10.30am-10.30pm; Sunday 10.30am-4pm Phone
5261 6142 The verdict
The sharp edges of the modern building and bare outside bench seating are softened by sea views through floor-to-ceiling windows and a soothing calm that engulfs you once inside. It’s helped by sound-absorbing carpet. High-backed padded chairs in grey and terracotta hues butt up against dark tables dressed with linen napkins and fine glassware. A banquette wraps around two walls adorned with local artist Adam Swan’s work on canvas (all for sale). Wine is on display behind the open bar and, if you’re well enough positioned, a glimpse of the kitchen’s inner-workings can be caught through the constant swings of the kitchen doors.