There are no big things in restaurants. Only little things. Hundreds and hundreds of little things.
Take that order. Remember those dietaries. Set the cutlery. Organise drinks (salted rim for the Tommy’s, please). Check back after mains.
Don’t mess up the steaks. Don’t forget to send the sommelier by. Which table had the Trimbach, again? Wait, did you tell chef about the dietaries?
This is it, over and over. Miss just one of those things – one of those exquisitely small things – and a fine night can quickly turn into a disaster.
It applies to restaurant design, too. Andrew Baturo is standing in his new riverside restaurant, Tillerman, three days out from opening, obsessively fiddling with the lighting.
“Every person who walks in that door has a different level of volume that appeals to them, a different style of music that appeals to them, lighting levels that appeal to them, what they like in their drink, how they like a menu formatted,” Baturo says. “Just having a venue that appeals to 90 per cent of people is an absolute achievement, when you think about it.”
That Baturo understands this so well is invariably what makes his venues – Walter’s Steakhouse, Popolo, The Gresham, Libertine and the recently closed Naga Thai – so consistently good.
Still, those lights. You understand why he wants to get them right. The Hogg & Lamb-designed Tillerman is a knockout – all spotted gum timber with handsome rounded joinery – but it comes into its own when, at night, the dimmers are turned low and the interplay with a floor-to-ceiling mirrored back wall begins. It’s a variation on a trick deployed to great effect by Hogg & Lamb at Butler, the Lune team’s South Brisbane wine bar, which opened in Fish Lane in July.
Tillerman is the first restaurant since Libertine that Baturo has built top-to-toe himself (Walter’s, Popolo and The Gresham are co-owned by Paul Piticco and Denis Sheahan; Naga, which he co-owned with partner Jaimee Baturo, was always envisioned as a pop-up in the old Pony Dining space).
“This was a complete shell, back to concrete walls and floors,” Baturo says. “We’ve had a free space to work with.”
The 120-seat Tillerman occupies the Riparian Plaza tenancy previously home to Kingsleys Steakhouse. It has inherited that venue’s prized waterfront position, but that’s where the similarities end. Just about everything is decked out in that spotted gum, the treatment broken up by tanned leather, botanic-print cushions and rattan furniture, plus illuminated arched features and globe pendent lights at night. It’s meant to wow without taking away from priceless views of the river and the Story Bridge outside.
“I didn’t want it to be over-designed,” Baturo says. “It’s the key to waterside or beachfront dining, because how can you compete with what we’re looking at?
“There’s something very meditative about the river. Sitting out here now: it’s really busy inside, over there. But it’s calm here. I love that dichotomy.”
The food matches the location, former Naga Thai head chef Suwisa Phoonsang (more or less the entire Naga team has come across from Eagle Street Pier to staff the new restaurant) taking international inspiration for her seafood-driven share-plate menu. Among the smaller dishes are Fremantle octopus carpaccio, Ora King salmon jerky, and hiramasa kingfish with crepes and citrus beurre blanc. Larger plates include fried Balmain bug wok-tossed with garlic and prickly ash, oven-roasted dusky flathead with burnt orange ghee and fried capers, and salt-baked Murray cod with salmoriglio dressing.
Away from the seafood, there’s a 700-gram full-blood, 5-score Wagyu flank with suet vinegar and beef jus; barbequed Brisbane Valley quail with sofrito and preserved lemon; and a chicken roulade with Roquefort, truffle, mushroom duxelles, pistachio and sugarloaf.
For drinks, a 150-bottle wine list isn’t dogmatic about any particular region, but prioritises coastal vineyards to suit the seafood. A generous selection of wines by the glass incudes plenty of Coravin pours. Elsewhere, there’s a lengthy list of signature cocktails and a sophisticated sherry program.
Baturo has previously talked to Broadsheet about his desire with Tillerman to create a venue that will exist for 30 years, echoing restaurants such as Il Centro or Cha Cha Char that inspired him when he was first knocking around in hospitality. But those storied places are now gone. How do you create longevity in a dining scene where everything seems to be getting dragged towards the middle of the market? The answer, he says, is still the same.
“It’s not about being trendy. It’s about being trendless,” Baturo says. “You stay the course, and that’s what will create a love affair with your venue. It’s a very difficult thing to do, when everything around you is changing and there’s a lot going on. But stick to your path. It’s really important.”
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