IT'S a good thing when a place evolves slowly. Having established a niche providing a popular patisserie and breakfast spot, Paul Hampton and his team at Little House on King have now spread their wings to entice the dinner trade.
The space is limited so it's advisable to book, and the menu is sensibly short while still offering enough choice. And with a well-qualified baker at the helm there is no shortage of sweet treats to finish the meal.
Service is impressive with just two staff visible tonight (one front of house and one in the open kitchen). The place is full and there's a large group table to keep happy, but we are never kept waiting longer than necessary.
The seafood chowder ($18.50) is all you might wish without sabotaging any thoughts of a main. It's heavy on prawns, mussels, octopus and salmon, but light on volume, creamy without being stodgy, full of all the tastes of the sea. There's a little bit of discussion on how much of the excellent accompanying house-made rosemary roll will be shared.
With a bit of a gnocchi theme going on (one entree and two mains feature this sometimes problematical pasta), how can you go past the seafood gnocchi ($18.50) for an entree?
Puffy pillows swim with plump prawns, capers and roasted cherry tomatoes in a light verjuice infused broth. Again, the quantity for an entree is about right - not too big, not too small.
There has to be a pretty good reason for me to choose chicken in a restaurant - too many memories of tough, dry breasts and overcooked legs. But it's safe to go out on a limb here. The medallions of boned chicken (ballotine) wrapped in crisp, salty prosciutto and stuffed with herbed chicken mousse ($27) are juicy and tender and the skordalia, artichoke hearts and rocket provide a satisfying counterpoint.
Today's fish, Atlantic salmon ($28), comes slightly pink inside, topped with smoked eggplant puree, resting on a salad of shaved fennel, slightly too chunky cucumber and red onion, cherry tomatoes and a creamy beetroot puree. I would have preferred to see some more locally caught fish, but do understand the logistics.
This chef may have started out at Little House on King producing delicately flavoured pastries and breads, but there is nothing delicate about the explosion of flavours in the all the dishes sampled tonight. However, from the herbs and seafood in the chowder and the gnocchi, to the whole pickled shallots, caper berries and pesto sauce with the chicken, and pesto with the fish, everything has been chosen to create balance while complementing each dish.
For dessert, there's a whole display cabinet full of pastries and tarts to choose from. In fact, the choice is so overwhelming it's easier to take the undecided's position and opt for a tasting plate. Let the chef decide!
A rectangular white plate holds four examples of the patissier's art; three tart shells each topped with passionfruit, raspberry or mango curd plus a tiny chocolate cake, which breaks open to reveal a salted caramel centre. Nothing more is needed than two perfectly extracted espresso macchiatos.
What: Little House on King; 27 King Street, Newcastle; 4929 3706.
Chef: Paul Hampton.
Wines: BYO, $5 a bottle.
Hours: Breakfast, Monday to Friday, from 7am; lunch, Monday to Friday, from 11.30am; dinner, Thursday to Saturday, from 5.30pm.
Vegetarian: Two entrees, one main on the menu but discuss with the chef when booking.
Bottom line: Two entrees, two mains, two desserts, about $115 without drinks.
Wheelchair access: No.
Do try: Gnocchi with prawns, capers, sage, cherry tomatoes and verjuice.
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