January 22, 2018

Fish Bits and Eyeballs: Saint Peter’s Frugal Deliciousness

Fish Bits and Eyeballs: Saint Peter’s Frugal Deliciousness

Now, when you find fish on New American menus, the trend is toward crudo or whole-roasted preparations. There are exceptions, of course, but most American restaurants that bill themselves as seafood specialists are trading in nostalgia, either for New England crab shacks or grand oyster houses.

For some reason, the kitchens of Australia have not endured quite the same fate. Charcuterie and offal and meaty overload reign here, too. But this country’s seafood prowess is remarkably strong because nuanced fish cookery never went out of style.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at Saint Peter, where Josh Niland takes the bro-chef love of offal and elegantly applies it to aquatic ingredients. This modest chef-owned storefront restaurant in Paddington is a bit of an anomaly; flashy restaurant groups dominate Sydney’s dining scene. But Mr. Niland, who was only 27 when he opened Saint Peter in mid-2016, gained his most significant experience at Fish Face Dining under Steve Hodges, a chef and owner who was vocal about the creative freedom of being one’s own boss.

Mr. Niland quickly learned that being self-employed has its unique challenges, many of them financial in nature. His cooking style is inspired by a chef’s desire to showcase lesser-known seafood varieties and flavors (you are far more likely to find wild kingfish on this menu than salmon or even barramundi), but also by an owner’s concern that every unused part of an ingredient is money lost.

The chef takes inspiration from Japanese cuisine and its love of fish bits, and he hopes to prove that they can be pleasurable to a Western palate. This is not a restaurant where the food feels like a dare. It would be easy to focus on the eyeballs — which, once turned into a chip, have much in common with a prawn cracker — and miss Mr. Niland’s greatest strength: the clever simplicity of his cooking.

Maray — small, oily fish with shiny silver skin — are filleted raw, lined up on a plate, drizzled with oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. They are then placed under the heat lamp just long enough that they arrive on the table at around the same temperature as the inside of your mouth. The slight warming and slick of oil make for a slippery velvet texture, and the fish’s being neither cold nor hot — neither raw nor cooked — is like a magic trick that amplifies purity of flavor. It is one of those dishes that works like a lightning bolt; suddenly you understand important truths that you previously did not.

The space, too, is beautifully simple. Brick walls and bare wooden tables lead to an open kitchen at the back of the room that’s not so open it intrudes on your lunch or dinner. There are thoughtful, agreeable wines to be drunk, and a short beer list peppered with great discoveries from small Australian breweries. Like everything here, even the low-acid, high-flavor vegetable accompaniments are geared toward heightening our understanding and appreciation of the seafood.

I have been racking my brain trying to think of an American restaurant that comes close to the inventiveness and deep consideration that seafood is afforded at Saint Peter, to no avail. Sure: Japan is better at traditional raw seafood, and Rene Redzepi can probably do things with a rare Nordic crab that would make me weep fat tears of joy. But Saint Peter is proof that when it comes to the modern dedicated seafood restaurant, Australia does it best.

Do you have a suggestion for Besha Rodell? The New York Times’s Australia bureau would love to hear from you: nytaustralia@nytimes.com or join the discussion in the NYT Australia Facebook group. Read about the Australia Fare column here.

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