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September 27, 2021

The art of hospitality

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a-duck-confit-2-aqua-(2)Story & photos Matthew Michaelis

The artful dodger

Do you really love well-executed food at a reasonable price? Do you really love great and experienced service? Do you really love a relaxed, tasteful ambience? Three oh-so-important qualities when talking about food and restaurants, especially if you’re about to rave about any of them.

These questions may be rhetorical but when and if you discover a place that has the trio right before your eyes, it ceases to be rhetoric and quickly turns into a hot recommendation.

I can’t tell you how many folk don’t know about the treasure I’m about to give you. It’s perfectly located, slightly out of the main and right on Byron Bay’s doorstep, and if you want to stay a ‘beggar at the well’ then read no further.

The Bay, as it’s sometimes referred to, is a place where you’ll find the salubrious on the same street as the casual. It seems that hospitality real estate is short and the demand for a shopfront is high. This may be the reason that the expensive and the reasonable are sometimes side by side.

You can’t escape though, the all-pervasive nature of Byron’s cosmopolitan and surf beach culture making it as relaxed as a ’burb can be.

Finding a little somewhere among the plethora of choice that’s truly come-as-you-are and one that offers the best of most things as above stated, can be both easy and hard. Hard because the casual places are often just a front for those conspicuous awkward crowds wanting to be seen. Rest assured that the proprietors will charge for the privilege of that popular tag.

If you’re an ‘artful dodger’ as I am, that is to say, you peruse a place and check those three things I’ve mentioned earlier, it can be fun and easy getting to the great.

a-gnocci-aqua-(2)It’s a sign

You’ll spot the signs – the best of them may have a cafe culture by day that morphs into an attractive restaurant/ bistro with perhaps cocktails and good wine in the evening. They’ll not get snotty and they’ll present a short but well-chosen list in the menu – share plates to boot.

The Aquarius is a cafe and a dining room of the sort I’ve described in the opening paragraphs. But don’t drive past because you think it’s serving strangers not locals.

I believe this should be the quintessential hang for locals, even if it’s just because of the generous 15 per cent off the bill for the privilege of being a local. It’s a perfect fit for a share plate and a tapas menu with a cheap cocktail ‘happy’ hour.

Beer on tap and a surprisingly well-priced and selected wine listing is sitting waiting for a proper meal to be ordered.

a-tuna-peppered-2-aqua-(2)Experience – the difference

I’ve only known Toni Clarke, the maitre d’ here, as an accomplished artist and a good one at that. Her works are hanging on the walls in the dining room here, so judge for yourselves if you come for brekkie, lunch or dinner.

I did know though that Toni and her husband, James, have been involved in the hospitality industry for many years and have also owned and operated their own popular eatery in Bondi – Brown Sugar.

Toni has done the full gamut, from silver service to fine dining. She shines here as the hospitality professional that I’m always going on about. Seamless and appropriate, with that emotional intelligence that’s hard to find when you just want to relax and be helped out of your stressed life.

As if that’s not enough to harp on about, head chef Paddy Hobbs is also a consummate and skilled chef with 30 years in the business – Fresco in Bangalow and Serrano in Kingscliff to name a couple – which was more than evident to me on my plate.

It was a quiet night with a smattering of tables occupied, though I do believe the overall trade experience front of house and in the kitchen I observed would kick in were they flat out and pumping.

an-art-of-serving-entree-aqArtfully prepared, gratefully received

On arrival some cocktails were had. I don’t normally push these things; however, they were beautiful examples of the colourful tipples – an Apple and Blueberry Mojito along with a ‘Chili, Cherry Blossom’, gently perfumed while the shock of chili came like a slap from a jilted lover.

Enough metaphors, though this would be the perfect place to take someone for a make-up.

The food here is artfully prepared, cooked and served – a baked pumpkin and sweet potato gnocchi listing at $18 came forth, plated beautifully, sitting comfortably in a delicate, subtle pool of cream, parmesan, and herbs; I jumped on one of my faves, the Duck confit ($31), served in a setting of baby spinach, fondant potatoes and sided with black cherries in a good and rich jus.

The entrees with a ceviche of raw tuna along with the fish of the day were further proof that the Aquarius is not an ordinary choice for dinner. Considering this 15 per cent cut on top for us locals, it sounds too good to be true – well it wasn’t at the time I ate.

The quirky wine listing, well chosen and priced, my pick being the Cake Shiraz, McLaren Vale by the glass at $8.50 ($35 by the bottle).

I confess that this has been a favourite of mine to grab some brekkie and lunch and that I hadn’t thought of it for a dinner; it’s now a place for the evenings too. I’ll be sending locals in for some art: the art of clever hospitality.

a-portrait-toni-paddy-3-Aquarius Cafe and Restaurant

Fully licensed

(Cocktails Happy Hour from 5pm until 7pm)

Locals’ discount card for 15 per cent off all food and beverages.

Ph: 1800 028 909

16 Lawson St, Byron Bay

Open 7 days

Breakfast & Lunch: 7.30am–3pm

Dinners: Wednesday to Saturday 6pm until late.

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