Bills Fishhouse is one of Port Macquarie’s most respected and lively venues, a casual eatery featuring a gleaming open plan galley kitchen, a bar redolent of a coastal beach-hut and windows that open on to Clarence Street, allowing the fresh coastal breezes to flow inside.
Tonight we share the dining room with a full house, and enjoy a welcoming and professional service that puts us immediately at ease. Fast become the seafood go-to centre of Port Macquarie, Bill’s is proud of its sustainably line-caught fish. Three local operators supply the restaurant with catches from the waters between Forster and Coffs Harbour on the NSW mid-north coast. The current season’s array includes spotted mackerel, wild kingfish, blue eye and hapuka, plus sensational local prawns which the restaurant sources directly from the harbour-side boats. Shellfish features widely on the menu: the restaurant’s oysters are proudly sourced locally from David Tunstead Oysters on the Hastings River, literally 1km away from the restaurant; and the sweet and delicious champagne bugs – that are hugely popular – come from Yamba further north.
Within moments of being seated a colourful plate of local Sydney Rock Oysters, served three ways, is presented to our table along with a bottle of Robert Stein Riesling from Mudgee, NSW. We first sample the oysters natural with a tiny squeeze of lemon. Their creamy texture and length of flavour is a luxurious treat. An elderflower and grape purée, made granita style is next. It’s topped with baby basil and presents a light subtropical taste and aroma that seems fitting. As a palate cleanser, a peach mousse with chilli completes the collection. Each style pairs well with the riesling’s elevated citrus, stone fruit and spice characteristics.
Chef owner Pete Cutcliffe is a man with an impressive history, having worked in some of Australia’s most renowned kitchens. After spending the past 14 months running the kitchen on site, earlier this year he also acquired the business.
Pete got his start locally completing an apprenticeship in town, but later moved to working in 5-star hotel kitchens in Sydney before being selected to help start up Jamie Oliver’s Sydney flagship restaurant, Jamie’s Italian in Pitt Street, where he worked as executive sous chef. Pete’s also worked in several hatted Sydney restaurants plus has a wealth of experience in group executive roles. He explains the reasons for moving back to Port Macquarie where he grew up were its increased hospitality options and population growth – and also his love for its craft beer, especially including local producers Moorebeer Brewing Co. and Fernbank Creek Cidery.
A recent refinement to his restaurant is the newly installed wine fridges which allow wine to be served at the correct temperature, for example at 12C degrees instead of 4C. This is part of the plan, he says, to step his restaurant up to the next level; however in doing so, he doesn’t want to detract from the restaurant’s reputation of being the quality casual eatery for which it’s famous.
While Pete expertly crafts a range of complex seasonal dishes, he also knows precisely when to allow the produce to speak for itself, often only adding just a few additional ingredients to enhance flavours. The barbecued local prawns are a great example of this treatment. Wonderfully charred smokey flavours are elevated to a new heightened level of umami taste with their excellent coating of fermented soybean and chilli paste. We simply cannot believe the level of, and juicy sweetness of their flesh: their preparation is nothing short of sublime. Thankfully Pete says this dish will remain on the menu as it’s known as a bit of a hero.
Celebrating the state, Bill’s chooses to serve only NSW produced wines, each selected for their boutique appeal, distinct regionality and premium quality. Paired with the prawns is a locally produced Cassegrain Edition Noir Three Tiers 2017-vintage wine. This wine is made locally from a blend of viognier, marsanne and roussanne grapes, each sourced from a range of premium wine growing regions across NSW. It features fragrances of citrus, grapefruit and lime zest, plus other warmer melon characters including lovely musk aromas that come to the fore as the wine opens up. This is a serious food wine with a perfectly balanced palate of crunchy fresh summer fruit – think honey melon and freshly picked pink lady apples.
Our mains choice proves the point that premium fresh fish, expertly seasoned and cooked with care, doesn’t need to be complicated in order to impress. Pete presents us with a local mahi mahi fillet with a salty/buttery crispy crust. Topped with a light herbal dressing it’s an impressive offering. Adding a pleasing autumn touch, roasted kohlrabi with shallots, thyme and garlic, plus roasted yellow squash and a celeriac purée add warm earthy elements which softly weight the dish.
Bills Fishhouse, as Pete unabashedly explains, rarely makes desserts a big focus; however on this occasion we are wowed. An apple tart tartin – cooked upright (house style) – has a golden flaky pastry that’s rich and more-ish. It’s topped with a not-so-sweet sticky date ice cream and chai caramel sauce pairing that nicely compliments the caramelised apples inside the tart. While Pete plays down its importance, we know better – this is a French classic that he delivers with ease. It completes the meal in style.
For those looking for a top eatery showcasing Port Macquarie’s best seafood, Bill’s Fishhouse should be one of your first considerations. It offers a relaxed atmosphere, great understated professional service and fresh seafood options changing daily. It was a highlight of our visit to the region.
BILL’S FISH HOUSE
2/18-20 Clarence Street,
Port Macquarie, NSW
Tel 02 6584 7228