Merivale owner Justin Hemmes and executive chef Jordan Toft were channelling Aussie film The Castle when they gathered a handful of Sydney journalists in the south coastal town of Narooma last week for a preview of Coogee Pavilion’s highly anticipated middle level.
Waves crashed behind a linen-clad Merivale bartender, who was holding a bottle of vodka encased in a hunk of ice while someone else shucked oysters – all to evoke “the vibe” (of the thing) and the type of experience guests will have at what’s being heralded as one of Merivale’s most ambitious projects.
“Jordan and I have spent quite a bit of time down here together cooking and talking about the project, and we have a similar love for nature and experiences, and not over-finessing it,” says Hemmes “… Middle level for us is about creating experiences for people, and we think coming down here is a wonderful experience because it sets the tone and talks to the essence of [the middle-floor development].”
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The pavilion’s mid-level opens in January – six years after Hemmes floated the idea to Toft over dinner in LA, and five years after Merivale converted the declining Coogee Beach Palace Hotel into one of the city’s busiest venues. It’ll slot in between the venue’s other hugely successful offerings: the ground-floor pub and casual eatery, and the top-floor over-18s rooftop bar.
The new middle space will be home to three distinct venues: a restaurant called Mimi’s, cocktail bar Will’s and a wine-and-tapas bar named Una Más. What will unite them will be a celebration of coastal dining and Toft’s (Bert’s, Bar Topa) cooking philosophy, which takes Mediterranean influences and places them firmly in an Australian context.
“We’re not producing a story restaurant – ‘this is our eight courses and this is who we are,’” says Toft later in the day, as he adds to a big platter mud crabs, scarlet prawns, octopus and lobsters just cooked over a fire. “We really want it to seem personable to everyone who comes in – give them whatever experience they are looking for, but still curate it.
“People always ask me what style of cooking I do, and I just say I love the food we have [in Australia], the seafood and produce. Like those anchovies we served before, and the mozzarella – those [simple, fresh] elements speak to the love of food and the feeling it gives you. That’s my style and that’s what this place is about.”
The first area you encounter when you walk up to level two, says Hemmes, is Una Más. Overlooking a park, it will fit 50 people or so and is designed to be a place you can have a quick drink or settle in for a meal. “Think a chilled chablis or vermouth, with a just-shucked oyster, seafood off the plancha [grill] and anchovies on fresh bread,” say Toft.
The cocktail bar, Will’s, will have a European feel. “It’s named after my dad, who was actually called William but changed his name to John because he didn’t like it,” says Hemmes. “Mimi’s is named after my mother – my father used to call mum ‘Mimi’, and now all the grandchildren call her that.”
Mimi’s is the middle floor’s magnum opus – a love letter to Coogee beach, Sydney’s coastal lifestyle and long lunches. It’ll be a calm, elegant space amid the boisterous punters above and below, with arched windows framing handsome ocean views. From the open kitchen’s bespoke Josper grills will come smoky seafood, meat and vegetables.
Hemmes says the kitchen atmosphere is similar to his Paddington restaurant Fred’s, which makes you feel like you’re dining in someone’s home. “But it’s even more like you’re part of it here, because you almost walk through the kitchen to get to Mimi’s dining room,” he says. “At Fred’s, because [it’s in the corner], you don’t get that interaction.”
You can have a nip from the roaming vodka cart and, if you want to splash some cash, pair it with bumps of caviar. It’ll be spooned onto the back of your hand rather than plates.
The design aims to impress, and is a collaboration between Justin’s sister Bettina Hemmes, stylist Amanda Talbot, and Vince Alafaci and Caroline Choker of ACME. Bettina says they’ve retained the style of the original pavilion, and pared things back (at least in contrast to their Northern Beaches restaurant, Bert’s – the most likely comparison) and allowed plenty of room between dining tables.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have time on our side for this project; we’ve really taken our time to develop it,” says Hemmes. “It’s evolved tremendously from where it started … and the extent of detail is something we’re very proud of.”
Coogee Pavilion’s middle floor is slated to open in January.