When Saint Peter reopens this week after 119 days with its front windows papered over, it’ll bear little resemblance to the celebrated pescatarian fine diner that closed under covid lockdowns in March.
Transformed from a conventional table-and-chair dining room, the updated Saint Peter dining room is now intersected by a striking 12-metre Carrara marble-topped bar – the same pale, speckled stone at Fish Butchery, the fish provedore and takeaway shop located nearby that’s also run by co-owner and innovative chef Josh Niland. With the kitchen on one side of the bench and diners on the other, the switch gives Niland and his fellow chefs more cooking space, while also giving diners an opportunity to watch the action from their comfortable, brown leather stools. The layout means the restaurant can now only seat 22 people (14 during restrictions).
“Julie and I were working on a number of different opportunities, and then covid hit,” Niland says, referring to his wife, who is co-owner and who designed and implemented the original and reborn fit-outs. “This is the restaurant I wanted to open when I first saw the space [in 2016] but didn’t have the capital or the confidence to just throw a huge piece of marble in the middle of the room. Just walking in there now, it feels a bit more grown up and mature.”
Evoking the venue’s sushi-train past (Toko Paddington occupied the site until the mid-2010s), as well as traditional Japanese sushi bars and iconic seafood counters such as Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco, Niland hopes it delivers the kind of performative cooking experience that will further allow him to espouse the virtues of seafood. The sustainable seafood advocate and his fellow chefs will be able to demonstrate the care they take when handling pescatarian proteins, their pioneering fin-to-scale philosophy and the quality of the produce they work with.
“I’m really excited to be so close to all our customers … to hand over the work of our fishermen and growers while explaining where the fish is from, who catches it, and why they catch it a certain way,” says Niland, who in May won two major James Beard Awards for his The Whole Fish Cook Book, which are regarded as the Oscars for cookbooks.
The proximity between diner and chef, he adds, also transforms the restaurant experience into a quasi-masterclass, offering in-situ demonstrations of oysters being shucked, fillets being pin-boned and perfectly aged fish skin being grilled into pork-like crackling.
“I think it’ll show the average punter that we’re doing justice to the fisherman that goes out in the middle of the night to get us fish so that we can have it in the kitchen hours later,” Niland says.
Within arm’s reach of the chefs, and in full view of diners, is the kitchen’s charcoal grill, deep fryers, chrome-topped “mirror” grill (a new addition Niland says will allow them to explore a wider range of temperatures to cook fish) and the signature heat lamps, under which Saint Peter’s seafood artisans not only keep plates warm but use the gentle heat to finish the cooking process.
The menu’s more casual style for lunch and a la carte for dinner remains aligned with Saint Peter’s original mission – to showcase exceptional quality, sustainably sourced fish and seafood. Niland says both the wine and food will become more “detail oriented” and will change depending on the latest catch. That means greater emphasis will be made to suppliers.
Think charcoal-grilled rock flathead with a bush tomato harissa; or Murray cod that’s been dry-aged for 14 days and served with a salt-and-vinegar-seasoned head. And on the menu, they will be listed alongside the region they came from and the name of the person who reeled it in.
Niland also believes the team’s work with Mr Niland At Home (now rebranded as Fish Butchery At Home) added a few new strings to Saint Peter’s bow. It launched during lockdown and quickly become a roaring success, offering a single, playful finish-at-home meal each day – things such as pulled-and-smoked Mooloolaba moonfish brisket in challah bread; chilli con yellowfin tuna in cornbread; and red gurnard tikka masala.
“With At Home I was able to work out several things that I’ve always been thinking about doing with fish, but have never been brave enough to do,” he says. “When you don’t have that constant burden of a customer having that ‘Saint Peter experience’, you can be a little more expressive and creative with what you do.”
Expanded too is the kitchen’s larder section, previously relegated to a small space beside the dishwashing station. It means an expanded raw fish range, some of which Saint Peter had previously eschewed. Among them might be a plate of raw, dry-aged striped trumpeter, bream and tuna dressed with poorman’s orange (a cross between a tangerine and a pomelo) ponzu and finger lime, or a plate of fish charcuterie prepared at Fish Butchery.
The upstairs storage area is now a generous cooking space used to bake bread, prepare the iconic Saint Peter’s chocolate brownie with cod-fat caramel and also the lemon tart, among other things. “In terms of what’s being cooked to order for service though, all of that will be done in front of the customer,” he says.
With a new, dedicated bar area, the drinks list has also grown to include a larger selection of wines emphasising Australian makers, and cocktails with locally made gins and whiskies. Niland is looking forward to see if Ronnie Gorman, who has overseen the drinks list’s development, will be as creative with fish products in the drinks as the chefs are with the food. “I’m sure he’s going to work hard to get the Bloody Mary that we did with smoked tuna heart back on. But I don’t think we’ll be seeing any gall bladder lemon, lime and bitters.”
Even though the eatery has the same name, Niland says they view this week’s opening as though it were a new venue.
“Having so few people in at once, eating your food? Being able to prepare their food in front of them and focus on every small detail? This is the restaurant of anybody’s dreams, I think,” he says. “I haven’t proven that it works yet, but I’m really excited.”
362 Oxford St, Paddington
Thu–Sat noon–2pm, 5.30pm–10pm