exploring and gourmet dining at rick steins at bannisters, Port stephens
Rise and shine at The Anchorage in Port Stephens!
Our package includes breakfast and the Anchorage’s is famous for its bottomless sparkling wine breakfast. Pre-COVID19 it would be served buffet style, with an offering of continental breakfast and a few hot options. These days, while all options are available it is table service only. Mr T is encouraging me to start the day with a wine, but I am not in the mood or the condition for it. As it is, I am still full with last night’s dinner so I stick to the continental breakfast. It is quite sizeable already, coming with an assortment of danishes and croissants, yoghurt, fruit salad and juice.
Mr T loves a hot breakfast and can’t go past the fried eggs on toast, home made baked beans and double smoked bacon.
Needless to say that we are fuelled for the day. Hiking is in order but I am told “ no climbing!”. So that rules out the Tomaree Headland. Instead we head out to explore a trail leading to Big Rocky. Big Rocky is a small island just off the coast of Port Stephens.
Mr T’s trail map shows the access is via Big Rocky Trail, located off Gan Gan Road, around 6km north of Anna Bay. The entrance is well marked with NSW National Park signs and it’s less than 2km before we reach the car park. It turns out this is a 2WD car park. If you have a 4WD, which we have, you can keep driving another 3km down the track and be right on the doorstep of Big Rocky. So much for our hike! From there, it’s only a casual 200m stroll to the rocks and some of the most breathtaking coastline.
The water is crystal clear, there are rocks to climb or fish from, and a small secluded beach all to ourselves on that beautiful winter’s day. I look out for whales in the distance, but unfortunately there are none passing this morning. However, we can see another beach around the headland, with more 4WDs and we decide to go and explore. The hiking day is quickly renamed beach driving day, as we reach the access to Samurai 4WD beach, only a few kilometers further south.
I am at the wheel and having fun on the bumpy trail. It is narrow and sandy, but as it winds through the trees before the open dune system, is mostly firm. There are signs to look out for incoming traffic, hinting at a highly trafficked beach.
Once in the open, the sand softens very quickly and Mr T is urging me to “keep going, don’t stop” ! Judging by the messy tracks in the wide trough in the dune, we’re not the only 4WD coming in with too much air in their tyres using speed and revs to get through the soft stuff. Once on the beach, it gets better, sand is firmer. It is a steep beach though, and as I am driving to the northern end to check out the camping ground, I start stressing about turning the car around without getting wet from salt water or bogged at the bottom of the dune. Somehow I manage it, but not without much palpitations for both of us. At that stage, I have had enough beach driving and hand over the wheel to Mr T who is a natural at these things.
As I am taking a picture of the beach, there is movement in the dunes, and I turn around to find a naked guy staring at us. I can’t tell the expression on his face, since I am not really looking at his face, but I am sure he is amused by our antics. So, yes, it is a nudist beach and now that I am not focusing on the driving anymore, I notice a couple more naked bodies soaking up the sun. Mr T handles the sand dune exit like a pro and after all the excitement, we head straight for Murray’s Brewing Company.
On the main road to Port Stephens, we drove past Murray’s a few times last year but never got a chance to stop. This small independent brewer has been in operation for nearly 15 years, and its craft beers feature on the local restaurant drinks menu, so Mr T is familiar with their offering. While he is in beer haven, I am pleasantly surprised to discover they have teamed up with Port Stephens Winery and have a cellar door with up to 20 local wines to try. A shame I am driving, so I turn my attention to their curated merchandise and do a bit of souvenir shopping instead.
The reason why we skip lunch and hold off at the cellar door, is because we’ve managed to score a last minute reservation for dinner at Rick Stein’s at Bannister tonight. This has been on my foodie bucket list for years, and having previously missed out on a table at his Mollymook’s restaurant, I am beyond excited to finally taste the man’s food!
We have an early evening reservation and arrive 30 minutes in advance, planning on a pre-dinner drink at the Terrace Bar. I have visions of sipping a cocktail by the pool, overlooking the ocean during Happy Hour. Instead, we are told the bar just closed ( it is 5pm ) but we can while away the time with a drink at Cheeky Dog, the pub and eatery located adjacent to the building. I try to hide my disappointment and settle for a drink on the lawn.
When the restaurant doors finally open, there is a line of guests waiting for their table. I am a little worried about being in a crowded room, with COVID19 concerns but it turns out, there is plenty of space between tables. We are seated in a booth in the far end of the restaurant, which feels cosy enough while allowing us to watch the action in the room. Our waiter comes over right away, describing the menu and offering recommendations ( after I ask him what his favourite dish is! ).
Mr T is intrigued by the Oysters Charentaise, which is a combination of freshly schucked local oysters and hot and spicy baby sausages. The idea is to eat the oyster, have a bite of sausage and wash it down with a gulp of cold white wine. Apparently it works quite well with icy cold beer, he tells me.
I like it but I am much more taken by the black cuttlefish risotto. It is said to be a Croatian recipe, and it is a very black dish indeed, thanks to plenty of squid ink and tastes superb.
I love my main course even more: it is a grilled fillet of grouper with mushrooms, potato slivers and a black truffle sauce. Honestly, if I could eat this everyday, I would.
Unfortunately, Mr T was disappointed with his choice of Bombay Salmon Masala. The curry, though flavoursome, turned out to be dry and gritty, not enough sauce to soak with the rice, he said. He falls back on the mango chutney, lime pickles and chapati while eyeing my fish ( which I do share !)
This time I have room left for dessert and order the sago pudding with ginger spiced nashi pear. It is warm and comforting, a little sweet but only just so. I love it.
Mr T really enjoys his Rum and Raisin ice cream with almond wafers, espresso and pedro ximenez. It is pretty much a version of Affogato, which happens to be one of his favourite desserts.
By then, the restaurant is pretty much full. I was concerned that we would be asked to vacate the table after 2 hours, but there is no need to. If other guests are waiting, we’re not made aware of it and we linger a little while enjoying small chat with our friendly waiter. He does mention the fact that Rick Stein’s has been very busy in these COVID days, possibly because it is one of the very few establishments opened to “outside” guests.
I expected it would not be a cheap meal, and indeed it isn’t, with the bill adding up to $125 per person, including drinks. However it is not much more than dinner at the Anchorage’s Galley Kitchen. So, as far as special occasion restaurants go, I would happily return and try some of the other items on the menu.
And talking of sampling new items on the menu…that’s exactly what I do the next morning for our second and last breakfast at the Anchorage. Taking full advantage of a late checkout, I feel quite peckish after an early morning stroll around Corlette Point, so indulge in eggs benedict and multiple coffees.
Mr T plays the light card today and sticks to the continental breakfast. Neither of us partake in the wine offered though, as we are planning a long drive home via the backroads of NSW countryside.