Ritual Restaurant, Nelson Bay

Ritual Cuisine, 2 Austral St, Nelson Bay NSW 2315,

So: this is a fabulously detailed post, with fascinating detail and (mostly) lovely pictures, but if you’re one of those ‘get to the point’ types, here’s the low down. If you love food as theatre, get to Ritual. Soon. 9/10

First off, let me tell you I have never been asked to fill out an acceptance of terms and conditions document, and return it signed before a booking can be confirmed. Not at the Fat Duck, not at Tetsuyas, not at Momofuku Seibo. Though the latter does have some booking quirks of its own.  So it was a surprise to receive it from Ritual. I mean, I get it, right? No shows give people the shits. I’ve been asked to provide a credit card in advance plenty enough, knowing I’d be charged if I didn’t turn up. Fair enough. Personally, I would never, ever not show up without ringing (well) in advance and explaining my dire emergency to the restaurant concerned. But I know that Joe Public is ultimately a selfish bastard, and can therefore understand eateries’ desire to firm up their bookings any way they can. So I filled out the form, sent it back, and heard…nothing. Until the day of the booking. Mmmm. Interesting start.

Is this a whinge? Am I saying not to go? Nope. Because other than that wee complaint, Ritual was absolutely terrific. Fantastic. Stunning. Dreamy. Whatever. I’m a fan and can I move in next door please? Alongside the IGA and the Malaysian takeaway. Cos that’s the other thing – the location is weird. So much so that when attempting to find them, walking the backstreets far from the hub of the town, we nearly rang to ask if we were in the wrong suburb. It’s in the middle of a quiet, middle class suburb of Nelson Bay, nowhere near anything even remotely ‘happening’.

Sorry, that sounded like another whinge, didn’t it? Well, in that case it will balance out the rest of this post, which frankly is going to sound as if I’m sponsored by Ritual (I’m not, sadly. Though if they want to send me samples of their excellent kimchee, I for one, am not going to complain).

The general format is to choose your appetiser, main, and dessert courses based on 2 samples which are presented and explained by the chef. The seating was described as communal (always gives me the horrors, that, since I hate talking to people I don’t know, finding out that they hold some awful clashing point of view to my own and then be stuck next to them for 4 hours. Ugh). As it turns out, the tables were sized for two but pushed together in a zigzag, cleverly allowing you to be a cosy couple, or sociable should you wish to be. Neat.

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Communal seating and set start time meant Chef had only to describe everything the once, which he did from the centre of the room before each course, presenting the rationale and the background to each dish, and an audience participation thing got going that bordered on a bit of a party atmosphere. There were questions from the floor about ingredients and techniques. Foodie heaven. There was so much information that I had a hard time jotting it all down – and ended up swapping notes with the couple posting photos opposite us! It was as if you’d asked a food blogger what could make a meal more perfect than just the taste, visuals and physicality of it all – most of us would probably say – “background on how it was made – techniques and process, experimentation and all”. Probably didn’t make for a romantic evening for two but I’ve no doubt that everyone was having a whale of a time – I could see they were.

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The first 2 samples – pork & apple, and white chocolate & caper

After leaving us for a while to taste the 2 samples, chattering excitedly about what the tasters could be leading to, he returned to take our orders, going round the room for call outs. Until each course was actually presented, we were kept guessing as to content; a totally genius way to keep the tension going, interest up. In between main courses were a succession of tidbits and more audience participation, ensuring we were never left idling waiting while food was prepped. Extra neat. The four hours just flew by!

Anyway – to the food. We started, outside over drinks, with a series of canapés, beginning with rosemary & garlic candy floss, served on a ‘stick’ of rosemary.??????????????????????????????? Intriguingly sweet at the same time as garlicky, it was a pleasing glimpse into the experimental nature of the food to come. As was the next canapé, an artichoke sorbet. Though not stated, I suspect from the flavour it was Jerusalem artichoke, earthy and actually quite plain. Wasn’t my favourite thing. Unlike the tom yum soup bubbles served on a tiny onion omelet, presented as ‘eggs’, with coriander & chilli ‘papers’ to add if you wished to. We wished to. It was divine. My flashed out picture, taken in the increasing twilight, simply doesn’t do it justice:???????????????????????????????IMG_9203

One of the pre dinner seating areas, cleverly separated from the restaurant by hanging dividers

Then it was time to take our places indoors and start the meal proper. I’d noticed while we were sitting outside that there was a fair bit of prep going on – intriguingly, on the wall hangings, where small canisters were being placed, and plastic spheres were appearing on a faux tree of wire.???????????????????????????????


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Intriguing paper lined little pots on the walls

At one end of the room, a wire covered ‘tree’ stood, surrounded by astro lawn. Peering into the tree, trying to work out the contents of the plastic ‘fruit’ balls – of which, more later – certainly made for an ice breaker, setting the format for the evening to come.IMG_9221

Though we’d been told not to try the soup spoon samples until they’d been described, we had a few more nibbles to be going on with while everyone settled down. Salty titbits in a wee bowl, plus a tiny – oh, so tiny! – spoonful of delectable kimchee, that I could’ve eaten by the truckload full:

???????????????????????????????After hot water was added to another bowl, the white tablet inside resolved into our instant hot hand towel. Kinda cute.  A pineapple and black sesame sorbet cleared the palate again – by now though the meal proper hadn’t begun we were already on our 6th or 7th dish.???????????????????????????????

Pineapple sorbet, black sesame

We were advised that all the nibbles were intended as prebiotics – a subject dear to my heart – the kimchee and pineapple especially. Finally we were allowed to try our first choice spoons – apple and pork or white choc and caper.  Orders were taken, and by this time the excitement over what could possibly be coming next was palpable. Delightfully, one of the pieces of wall art come into play – the artists models along one wall, each holding a diminutive tray.

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Hot, fresh from the oven baby rolls were placed for us to chose from; a camomile sourdough. This from a starter begun 2 years ago from water & camomile, allowing natural yeasts in the air and on the flowers to take hold.

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I could’ve eaten another – ooo, dozen or so? But no need, as at last the first ‘proper’ course arrived, the result of choosing the white chocolate and caper selection:

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A chicken brioche ‘pie’ with a white chocolate sauce, mange tout dukkah, containing chilli & caraway, cumin & hints of pickled onion, the salted capers almost licorice-y.  Personally I couldn’t handle the sweetness of the white chocolate here so I was pleased it was served separately. Mr C wolfed his and the rest of mine. In an error of judgement we had both chosen the same dish. No photos therefore of the apple and roast porky crackling amazement that we saw being delivered to the rest of the tables. (The split, in case you’re wondering, was about 50/50 for most of the dishes.)

Next up was a lime sorbet ‘cooked’ in nitrogen with a parsley dust and sherbet – the parsley giving an interesting grassy flavour to the zing of the lime.

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No sooner than that was snaffled, the second tasters appeared – one containing beetroot & the other, mushroom:???????????????????????????????

In between the ordering and the delivery of our mains, the wall art was reloaded with more teeny rolls; this time a pretzel bread, to be served with ‘beer butter’ – a bitter tasting, to me almost quinine-y, tannic affair complementing the dark, shiny bread.

More excitingly, we were encouraged to get up, wander about and help ourselves to the other wall hangings – which turned out to be Fish & Chips – the little paper lined pots containing sashimi, and the plastic spheres, celery crisps, deep fried pickled ginger, & crispy wonton skins. I’ll be making pickled ginger crispy in my own kitchen I think – it was a bit special.???????????????????????????????The beetroot sampler turned out to be kangaroo, with a strong beetroot theme; it had been marinated in beetroot, and was served with coffee marinated beetroot, deep fried beetroot, cous cous, & pickled cherries:

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I wasn’t expecting coffee’d beetroot to be as interesting as it was but actually that was one of my favourite parts of the dish – though the rest was delicious as well; the kangaroo tender, cooked to perfection (I’ve always managed to make it leather like in my attempts to cook it).

Mr C chose the mushroom – in fact, as I had specified no mushrooms for my dishes, I didn’t even receive the mushroom sample spoon – and his dish was a stunner.

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House smoked chicken yakatori, which had also been confit’d to fall apart tenderness, on buckwheat in stock & mushrooms, plus hazelnut, artichoke, pickled gherkin & onion in a separate cast iron casserole. That was dreamy, yumtious chicken. Healthy dose of carbs too – always welcome if I’m drinking; the frequent lack of which is one of my complaints about fine dining. Anyway, no such problems here.

Round about this point, given the matched wines (matched beers or teas also available), things started to get just a little hazy. I clearly recall the pink peppercorn fudge – partly because of the theatre of picking it from the final wall art:

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Pink peppercorn fudge

But this final palate cleanser I sadly failed to make a note of:

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And so to dessert, and our final sample spoons of the day:

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On one was a spiced apple (so I thought) and the other strawberry and cream.

The spiced apple was actually pear, and my notes are just a scrawl at this point. I think I said “poached, with pomegranate, malt, chocolate soil, pear, choc cake, cardomom ice cream, fudge choc malt (or milk??)”. Well whatever, it was lush. And see that dessert wine? That was lush too. God knows what it was. ???????????????????????????????

This is why I try not to do restaurant reviews. Do you see? Anyway, we again failed miserably and Mr C also chose pear (see comment above) – frankly the chances of him passing up on anything chocolate-y were slim to non existent. So here’s a picture of another couples’ strawberry based dessert:

???????????????????????????????Looks mighty fine, doesn’t it? They wouldn’t let me eat it (I tried) so I have only their thumbs up to go on here. This puts Ritual in that rare category of a restaurant able to do starter, main and dessert to the same standard – so many seem to find this a challenge. We have a code for it – a place is a starter/main (ie crap at afters) or perhaps a starter/dessert. Avoid mains. So another well done, Ritual.

So much of what they achieved in such a small premises is down to canny planning and a real passion for what they do. The format they use to such amazing effect means they can use seasonal ingredients that change, naturally, all the time, much of which can be prepared in advance – all those palate cleansers, for instance – while still making it an interactive and fun experience. They don’t need to have a huge menu – just 2 choices per course, but presented so ingeniously that no-one would ever find this restrictive. If you desire a quiet, romanatic place to pop the question, Ritual may not be for you. But if you are interested in great, sustainable food and a jolly good evening out, get along there. Oh did I mention that they’re also ridiculously cheap?

April 15 update: Disappointed to note that the restaurant is now listed as closed. Sigh.

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Port Stephens, NSW

There was a public holiday here in NSW recently and the House of Chopsticks decided a trip to the nearby Port Stephens was called for. In the interests of promoting this lovely part of the world, (Sydneysiders! Life outside the City!) here’s a little travelog.

Staying in Nelson Bay seemed the obvious choice as it’s the most densely populated town-let with the largest range of accommodation (well, largest for a last minute booking – maybe that speaks volumes in itself?), but the real beauty of the area is all around the bay. The rugged, rocky southern side of the peninsula is grandly wild – where it isn’t covered in allegedly the largest moving sand dune in the Southern Hemisphere.

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One of the things that’s a given while you’re here is sandboarding on the famous Stockton Dunes, where you hire a tiny plastic board and are 4WD hauled out to favoured, precipitous spots, ready to spend as long as you like whizzing down ridiculously steep slopes. Well, as long as your legs hold out, what with the walking back up to the top each time. Mr C was dubious about the appeal of this at first, but was soon shrieking like a girl as he plummeted down.

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Check out the height of that dune! We went with Sand Dune Safaris, but there’s plenty of companies to choose from and you can just rock up at the Lower Car Park, Birubi Point, Anna Bay without booking.

And yes, there really are camels, though sadly not wild ones; they were packed up and sent back to their farm home at the end of each day of plodding tourists along the sands.

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But of course it was the food I was most fixated on. No trip to the area can be complete without a trip to Murray’s Brewery – I note they’re doing wines as well these days – and they do a brisk trade of a public holiday weekend, I can tell you. Their Moon Boy ale was a winner with us, as was their most basic (cheapest at $18) garlic pizza:

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They were doing a roaring trade that weekend, and we hadn’t booked a table, so we ended up, as did many others, happily picnicked near their vines, under the shady trees.???????????????????????????????

As to Nelson Bay itself, it’s a fair enough little place. For a relatively small town there is a range of pretty reasonable eateries, alongside the usual seaside offerings. There’s good breakfast and coffee options all along the front, near the Tourist Info office, and a couple of streets in from the Marina are popular cafes recommended to us by several shop keepers. We ate at Sandpipers Restaurant, a nice enough choice but I don’t recall what I ate so…Mr C enjoyed his prawn hotpot, usually a starter but ordered as a main. Through ‘yum’ noises, he commented that its richness could’ve done with a little something green to set it off. I was disappointed that the wholefood cafe Essence on Donald was closed for the public holiday – as they stock foods from Ritual Restaurant (of which more later) and I was ready to pay in blood for their kimchee.

Much is made of the local prawns and oysters – next time we’ll try the Fishermans Wharf and the intriguing sounding ‘Bubs’. But this time we were saving ourselves for our dinner at Ritual. And I’ll tell you about that, next time.