Every town has its iconic places, including Kingscliff. The sleepy little coastal village, so loved by many, has such a place: a simple cottage overlooking the beach. For forty years, it housed restaurants, such as Tracey’s Garden Restaurant and Baja, where families would dine while on holidays.
For many, including present owners Mark Wilson and Lia Mason, the single-storey building evoked memories and dreams; a place the couple had coveted as the site of their new restaurant, Taverna. Together with co-owner Lee Middendorf they have restored the building to whitewashed glory, complete with a kitchen garden of herbs and citrus trees, overlooking the sea.
“We’ve had our eye on this place for some time,” Mark tells us. “Ten years, in fact! It reminds us of Santorini, where we got married,” he says, reminiscing about the idyllic island in Greece, home to Lia’s grandmother, its exquisite picture perfect views bringing a wide smile to his face.
Taverna is situated on the pretty southern end of Kingscliff beach; the tranquil end, we decide as we dine at a window table, gazing out on grassed dunes dotted with twisted pandanus, across wide water to the nature reserve of Cook Island.
Taverna’s menu is simple enough – one page of smaller and larger plates to share, sides and sweet things. No fancy terminology requiring interpretation. Simple dishes pairing flavours.
Given the standard of the trio’s other ventures, (the recently sold Spice Den and Osteria), we’re expecting high quality Greek food at Taverna.
Of course, it delivers! Plus some.
Head Chef Ben Jones sends us out a procession of modern Greek classics; dishes that transcend culture with innovation and surprise: Haloumi drizzled with bush honey and rosemary; Char-grilled octopus with organic fava bean paste and yellow beets, and 48 hour slow-cooked New England lamb shoulder with jus, roast garlic and oregano (the most expensive dish on the menu at $34).
Jones has a deft hand with flavour combinations and balance: Grilled white fish is seated on cauli skordalia, Grilled stone fruit laid over soft jersey cream and meringue garnished with sesame praline and, unexpectedly, dill fronds.
In a brilliant twist on the ubiquitous salt and pepper calamari, Fried local squid is served with crisp sheets of salty seaweed, bringing the sea itself back to the squid, while black and white sesame dukkah give a crunch of ‘crusty sand’ underfoot to the soft waves of rich flavour. Pink peppercorn mayo and lime balance the palate. The dish is a stroke of genius!
But then everything about Taverna shows such confidence.
As always, differences are subtle but worth noting, such as pastel green accents in place of predictable sky blue, linen cloths and napkins, and hand thrown tableware from local potter Grit Ceramics.
The nuances of flavour, colour, tone and texture are achieved by a crew with depth and breadth of experience under their belt: professional attire and attitude, knowledgeable service and an ability to recommend dishes and give wine and food pairing advice; unstuffy, attentive service that places napkins, refills water and notes time lapses between courses. Little things add up to big totals.
Seeking the perfect wine to accompany our lunch, Mark steers us towards a Jim Barry Assyrtiko 2016. For us, it’s an unknown choice on a wine list brimming with organic, sustainable talent, however it’s the perfect choice – crisp, stony, with floral layers and good length.
Jim Barry’s holdings of Assyrtiko were grown from two cuttings that second-generation winemaker Peter Barry sourced while on holidays in Santorini, home to some of the world’s oldest vines. It was the first (and at this point the only) Assyrtiko to be grown in Australia.
“It was like nothing I’d ever tried before,” Barry said later of his first taste of Assyrtiko in 2007. “There’s something special about a wine when you clearly remember exactly when, where and with whom you tasted it.”
Pale straw in colour, the wine carries the minerality of Santorini’s volcanic soil, even in Australia, its complex lemon and pear tones carrying a hint of salt that perfectly complements Taverna’s food.
How fitting, too, that our first taste of Assyrtiko should be here, in a taverna so close to our own caldera. It’s a finishing touch on our Greek-inspired lunch, a wine we could sit with and discover as it slowly unfolds.
Distinctly Greek, definitely modern, New World – all suitable descriptors for Taverna.
There are lots of reasons to return to Kingscliff for a weekend lunch. Rejuvenated with the re-opening of the bridge on its southern edge, it’s just the place to rekindle your love affair with Greek food.
Relax over lunch, let the salty sea breeze seep into your bones, and allow Taverna to help create new memories and dreams to treasure. It’s well worth the trip.
22 Marine Parade, Kingscliff, NSW Ph: 02 6674 8762
Open: Thurs – Fri 5.30pm – 11.30pm; Sat – Sun 12noon – 11.30pm (NSW time)
Note: Booking is essential.
Chef’s Table dining is launching Sunday January 8th. $39pp full banquet on Sunday evenings. Book online.
Good Food Gold Coast dined as guests of Taverna.
This review has also been published on Blank GC.