Special or landmark occasions in our family usually involved a nice meal out to celebrate. As I grew up near Maitland in the 1980s, I can remember eating at the Saddlery, the Little Red Apple, the Old George and Dragon and an Italian place on High Street opposite St Peters School that I cant remember the name of, but it was lovely (anyone?). Sadly, they are only memories now, having closed many years ago. Sophisticated dining in Maitland seemed to take a detour into obscurity for a long time afterwards.
For a city brimming with history and gorgeous historic buildings, longevity in the fine dining scene has not taken hold, and it is a shame. But now, slowly and surely, the centre of the city is coming back to life. The energy and the activity is returning and there are adventurous and creative businesses opening.
One such place is The Rigby. In a Victorian-era building, it was originally home to the JR Rigby stationery store, and has once again taken on the name and with it, a new lease of life.
Step inside and enjoy the heritage feel and decor, with a bar area at the front of the space, and dining at the rear. Sink into an oversized leather lounge chair and sip on a cocktail, or dive straight into dinner with a contemporary, sophisticated menu.
We venture in on one of those stinking hot heavy late afternoons. The space is cool and open and ready to rescue with a chilled glass of Andrew Thomas semillon and a schooner of Quickdraw pale ale.
While the menu is seasonal, the foundation of the dishes remains constant. We begin with the potato gnocchi with ricotta, peas and truffle oil. The pillows are soft, barely holding themselves together, but they do. And they arent doughy. The peas are whole plus pureed, adding a spring freshness and smooth sauce over each bite. Lovely dollops of creamy ricotta contrast with delicate tangy blobs of creme fraiche and the truffle oil adds that heady earthiness to the dish. Its green and vibrant and bursting with new life.
A plate of scallops pairs really nicely with the semillon (as per the wine matching suggestion on the menu) and it makes me glad I came. Three plump molluscs are seared and sweet and sit on top of a fan of smooth butternut pumpkin, sprinkles of crushed walnuts which add an undertone of bitterness, crumbles of dried black olive to add salt and a sweet and meaty bacon and maple jam which faces off against a hint of citrus. Its pretty and colourful and a perfect blend of salty and sweet.
The fish of the day is barramundi and its served crispy-skinned and moist in a wading pool of rich, slightly salty lobster bisque. A couple of thinly sliced fans of fresh fennel sit on top, almost looking like crabs perched on the marine platter. Its a plate with only three elements, but this dish offers such a mouth full of flavour you wouldnt want anything else competing with it.
The braised lamb shoulder melts like the other diners venturing in from the dead heat outside, but in this case you want it to. Paired with a creamy cauliflower base, tangy labne and bursting bites of pomegranate seeds, its a example of what you can accomplish with intelligently selected ingredients. Fried crispy cauliflower on top adds texture and a succulent black grape sauce adds depth to suit the lamb.
If you were after something more relaxed than a la carte, select the sharing banquet. Perfect for larger groups and more casual get togethers, you get to sample a smorgasbord of Rigby flavours in versions that dont require cutlery. The wine list is predominantly Australian, with a nice nod to local drops.
Father-son team Howard and Nick Bourne have created an eatery that offer diners smart service, delicious dishes and a great atmosphere.
There is some real talent in the kitchen and its great to have another exciting sophisticated dining option in the centre of town.
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