In a climate that has seen more closures than openings, it is heartening to find a place that is going quite nicely thank you, although, along with other east end businesses, they have had to wear the disruptions from civil works since 2017. And despite everything, had managed to retain one chef's hat in the Good Food Guide for seven successive years until this year when they unfortunately lost it. All this was achieved while expanding their catering business to include an external catering kitchen in Mayfield and taking on Longworth House earlier this year.
It makes me tired just talking about it.
Perhaps the secret of success for Chris and Ami Thornton and Restaurant Mason is their focus on their product, their knowledgeable and dedicated staff, where they are and what their sources are; local as much as possible.
Witness the shisito pepper jam made from tiny, herbaceous but not fiery peppers that are grown for them in Morpeth. These are combined with tomato, red chillies, sugar, vinegar and salt and cooked down to produce a not too sweet jam that is used in little dollops on the amuse bouche of crisp chickpea chips, along with spots of house cultured cream.
The first bite of dark-crusted sourdough bread, which is made in house daily from a culture that has been going since the restaurant started, sets the scene for what is to come. The accompanying butter (made from the above-mentioned cream) and confit garlic purée are so good it's hard to stop eating.
Smoked celeriac, saltbush and tangy sorrel provide taste and textural contrast to barbecued WA scampi in a creamy scampi sauce. Specks of black Avruga (a black caviar substitute made from herring) save it from looking too monochrome. If you want something light don't go past the scallops. Three plump, just cooked shellfish come with shaved discs of kohlrabi, sunflower seeds, a celery juice vinaigrette and lovage.
Wild caught barramundi from the Daintree is tonight's market fish. Crisp-skinned and cooked to a moist perfection, it perches on a raft of tiny cubes of braised southern squid, chorizo, roast and pickled peppers and finely sliced Morpeth radishes, all bathed in a bagna cauda.
Then there's perfectly roasted and well rested duck breast with confit leg from local hero Redgate Farm, served with caramelised radicchio and a sauce of earthy beetroot and orange that cuts through the richness of the duck. There are three optional accompaniments, including triple cooked chips but each dish is so well balanced these are hardly necessary unless you're very hungry.
And even if you're not, you'll find it hard to resist at least one dessert to share. Maybe the almond frangipane topped with shards of poached rhubarb and rhubarb glaze with orange and cardamom ice cream or the spiced roasted apples with ruby grapefruit, custard and a citrus madeleine on the side?
The wine list? It's good, mid to higher range, and concentrating on Hunter and other Australian heroes with a sprinkling of French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, North American and New Zealand drops. They are available by the bottle with just a few by the glass. When we asked for a glass of Pinot Noir to go with the duck, their suggestion of a freshly opened Beaujolais, not normally available by the glass instead, was inspired.
This is a great place to dine if only for the food. But there's so much more.
- Where: 3/35 Hunter St, Newcastle; 4926 1014; restaurantmason.com
- Executive Chef: Chris Thornton
- Drinks: Extensive range of wines, spirits, liqueurs, digestives and beers.
- Hours: Lunch, Friday 12pm-3pm; Dinner, Wednesday-Saturday, 6pm - late.
- Vegetarian: Separate menu
- Bottom line: Two courses, $75; three courses, $92
- Wheelchair access: Yes, into the restaurant, but toilets are upstairs.
- Do try: Roast and confit of Redgate Farm duck.