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Byron Shire
May 18, 2021

‘For so appears this Fleet majestical’ – Will Shakespeare

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Robert Mudge: finesse and skill.
Robert Mudge: finesse and skill.

Story & photos Matthew Michaelis

Well it’s official – the northern rivers is spoilt rotten and Brunswick Heads has the most recent example of just why we should be smiling. Two of fine dining’s darlings have partnered and have opened shop in this beachy suburb’s midst.

Fleet, as it’s called, doesn’t refer to ships, as suggested in the Shakespearean excerpt above; no, it’s the latest in boutique eateries. It’s a petite and refined restaurant setting positioned on half of the old Dominic’s Italian restaurant site in Fingal Street, Brunswick Heads.

It’s easy to miss during daylight hours, but at night it will be a place you can find by following the restless queues.

This is a cosy dining room; it’s the size of a well-to-do domestic kitchen complete with a chic interior, a wall of beverages, wines, the stuff of cocktails, a common table for sharing conversation, a bench window seat, and one more table out on the sidewalk.

The size doesn’t in any way detract from the well-thought-out daily printed menu items, those exciting things you’ll find here.

The only thing that may cause a diner any concern is actually getting in and securing a seat.

‘Unquiet meals make ill digestions’
– Will Shakespeare

Fleet: Parsnip, puréed and served with charred leek, raw shaved fennel, toasted hazelnuts and thyme.
Fleet: Parsnip, puréed and served with charred leek, raw shaved fennel, toasted hazelnuts and thyme.

I prefer boisterous dining rooms as there’s never a better reinforcement of a deserving eatery than to hear noisy accolades.

This is especially the case when the praise is coming from off-duty hospitality professionals dining in themselves.

Industry people are sometimes harsh critics inured to the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ syndrome, although anything new is a draw, I suppose. However, these were not just a collection of faces I’d seen before but two of my favourite maitre d’s from two of my favourite eateries here to spend their hard-earned on good food and service.

And as if that weren’t enough to impress a humble scribe like me, who should be dining in but Australia’s very own Vietnamese master chef, Luke Nguyen.

The SBS doyen of everything Asian and interesting took up most of the restaurant with his party and had me sitting outside on the footpath table. I didn’t mind though; I was sharing an equally energetic and unflappable table of diners.

All in all, an auspicious evening for a Monday night in an otherwise lifeless street, I thought.

Well, enough of the starlight and down to the food. You’d expect a person the likes of Astrid McCormack to know exactly how to run things perfectly.

Loam was her baby in regional Victoria. The two-hatted restaurant in country Vic was a place known for its imaginative use of fresh produce and they were awarded accordingly. Fleet’s Astrid has partnered with Josh Lewis, formerly of the lofty Vue de Monde in Melbourne, and they’re getting my ‘Stan Lee’ going. Superheros in mild-mannered suits perhaps? Not far from the truth in this little eatery’s case.

‘Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers’

– Will Shakespeare

Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis.
Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis.

I’ve cooked in my own places and have always thought how difficult it would be to do it in the open.

Josh Lewis does everything right there with his intimate dining room all gawking – it’s refreshing and entertaining and brave to say the least.

The menu you can expect will have things aboard that only a passionate and free-handed cook can come up with; parsnip is cooked in buttermilk, which Josh reserves when he makes his butter.

It’s then puréed and served with charred leek, raw shaved fennel, toasted hazelnuts and thyme; Spanish mackerel with jugged warm marrow and bonito, flecked with a grated horseradish; or perhaps smoked mullet, smoothed and topped with dill and large shards of fine potato and crisp mullet skin.

The format of the menu is minimalist – not a description in sight and not a problem with an intimate service to provide the clues you’ll need for ordering.

The pricing matches the care and sizing, from $5.50 for The Farm’s Bread Social rye and caraway freshly baked bread and house-churned butter to spread; $9 for a duo of oysters served plump on long-grated choko. $21 for chicken wings, octopus and kohlrabi, $22 for lamb breast, garlic Brussels sprouts and cheese rind or opt for an inclusive shared menu at $65pp. 

Act 2, Scene 3

Fleet's Robert Mudge with cocktails to die for.
Fleet’s Robert Mudge with cocktails to die for.

‘Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used’

– Will Shakespeare

If size matters to you, this is not your eatery. If you love the elegant and the imaginative with the fineries of good wines and a well-made martini or an old-fashioned, you won’t be disappointed.

Robert Mudge, the only floor staff here, is a hospitality dream for those he chooses to work for. Genuine and keen, knowledgeable and generously helpful, this is the sort that does the industry proud.

He treats his wines and cocktails as though they were family members. Warm suggestions matched with quirky drinks and fun-filled chats – happy and willing like I remember my new relationships to be. The wines are sexy too, intimate and boutique, sidled up against their clever makers with a story told to match the altitude of flavours.

Take a bow

Maybe Fleet has a metaphor that goes something like: when Sir Paul busked in NY for coin, most of his street audience didn’t know or recognise him, but there were a lot of ‘wows’ … ‘this guy should have been a Beatle’ coming out of the crowds.

Astrid and Josh can’t sing for their supper (at least I don’t think they can), but they can make a supper sing beautifully.

Fleet, open Thu–Mon, 3pm–10pm, 2/16 The Terrace, Brunswick Heads, NSW, 6685 1363

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