You can’t always get what you want.
So said a bunch of London larrikins back in late 1968, but, their lavish-lipped frontman crooned, if you try sometimes, you get what you need.
This isn’t some lame anecdote or animal rights sermon. We all have our dietary choices and requirements, from veganism to coeliac, Paleo to pescatarian, and it can be challenging to find a dining establishment to suit our needs. As a vegan, I have all but given up on getting what I want when dining out, invariably falling back to the good old faithful of sushi or making do with a consortium of side dishes while my friends tuck into steaks and seafood.
It’s my choice and I stand by it, but it does get a little bit frustrating. So when I received an invite from the renowned and much decorated Fins Seafood Restaurant, it could be said that I was a touch hesitant and perhaps a little sceptical.
Fins founder, manager and head chef, Steven ‘Snowy’ Snow, is a longstanding local, establishing the first incarnation of Fins on the banks of the Brunswick River. Rapidly gaining repute, the restaurant gained not one, but two coveted Chef’s Hats, the Australian Good Food Guide’s mark of dining distinction and every self-respecting chef’s ambition.
Moving into Byron Bay, under the right arm of the Beach Hotel, Snowy and Fins maintained their status, holding onto their Hats every year to date from 1996. But, with the sale of the Beach Hotel, Snowy felt it was an apt opportunity for a change of scene and the plush and lavish surrounds of the newly developed Salt Village at Casuarina offered the ideal location.
Their impeccable calibre didn’t falter one iota and Fins at Salt continues to be one of the most awarded and celebrated restaurants on the Coast from Brisbane to Sydney and beyond. Ten years have passed since Snowy doffed his hat and bid adieu to Byron Bay and, although remaining entwined in the community, both socially and for the abundant wealth of produce he sources locally, he has never looked back.
Despite this profusion of distinction and recognition, I could be excused for feeling a little trepidation venturing into the foreign territories of a seafood restaurant. I envisioned sea bass with smashed chat potatoes and red capsicum jus, sans sea bass and a linguine marinara of plain pasta, not that I should expect this of Snowy and his talented team, but these are the usual offerings when my request for a vegan dish meets the befuddled kitchen staff.
“Bloody vegans – why don’t they go to a vegan restaurant?” I know, I’ve worked front and back of house and I am the first to admit what an absolute pain in the arse my inconvenient dietary choices can be. I utter the ‘V’ word with downcast eyes, humility oozing from my pores, apologies and beseeching gratitude falling from my mouth. But in these days of culinary complications, a good chef should be able to think on his or her toes, taking requests in their stride and concocting something adequate on spec.
Exceeding every possible hope, testament to the boundless imagination and talents of Snowy and his team, what I experienced across seven courses of vegan degustation was nothing short of faultless, far beyond the creations of a dedicated vegan restaurant and not cobbled together from the ingredients or elements of other dishes, but created with the care and attention of an artist, flavours married in romantic perfection that make Romeo and Juliet look like a kindergarten kiss, mushrooms smoked, zucchini flowers stuffed and asparagus poached just for little old me.
Despite my ghast being absolutely flabbered, this catering to my inconvenience was not what struck me the most.
Fins is not like other restaurants. I have been lucky enough to dine well above my bankroll on more occasions than I deserve and every time has been impressive, but Fins is, as ineloquently as this may sound, something else.
Everything, from the diversity of the globally collected crockery that perfectly compliments each dish to the French ceiling fans, Indonesian timbers and sumptuous, handmade upholstery of their recent refurbishment, screams attention to detail.
Dining has become a complete experience once more. As you sink into the rich interior that belies the modern Salt Village just beyond the timber shutters, you are transported to Morocco or Marrakesh, brass fittings alluding to the lulling motion of Mediterranean waves. You eavesdrop fellow diners, convinced that Bogart must be in here somewhere, not giving a damn about his dear. A modern fusion of flavours offsets classical nuances, harking back to a time when service mattered, the little things were yet to be forgotten and the customer really was always right.
Snowy’s 2 I.C. and head sommelier, Florent Elineau, is the definition of subtle attentiveness, making you feel as if your every whim is catered to without feeling suffocated by the attention. He is, as all wine waiters truly should be, authentically and unapologetically French, to his absolute credit, his lilting accent infusing the classical surroundings with a Continental air.
Florent brings what can only be described as a je ne c’est quoi (I don’t know what) to the Fins experience, both in his impeccable service, as it is with all staff, and by his very presence. Perhaps his rolling ‘R’s and sibilant annunciation draw long absent memories back to the surface, childhood holidays of prolonged, twilight dinners on centuries old timber tables in rustic French villages enhancing the ‘experience’ part of the dining experience.
I cannot speak for the other customers, those slurping on the delicately balanced king prawn and saffron bisque or sampling the Arroz de Marisco risotto poised on the outstretched fork of their partner but, even to a vegan like me, every dish is as delicious to the eyes as it is to the palate.
Snowy is meticulous in his sourcing of ingredients. Everything is as local as possible, the fish he personally selects from Brunswick Heads, the exotic fruits garnishing desserts from the Tweed Coast’s Tropical Fruit World, even the astoundingly fresh and flavoursome wakame is Tasmanian, as local as can be for such a fickle crop. Through relationships built over decades, he receives the very best, freshest produce possible, ingredients only available after extensive time and effort spent with his suppliers. A pride that lacks all conceitedness and an unbridled passion for his craft exudes through both every dish and Snowy’s ever-genial, ever-smiling persona.
I had questioned the validity of a vegan’s perspective on possibly the country’s finest seafood restaurant, I had wondered what my opinion could count for. But, while my menu was lovingly and meticulously crafted for my specific requirements (as it would be for anyone offering advance notice of their desires), the smiles on the faces around me and the eyes rolled back in decadent and hedonistic pleasure spoke volumes.
Food is not something to be rushed, meals are not a time-consuming necessity, getting in the way of our daily chores and pleasures. What Fins brings to its clientele is more than some of the finest food crafted by the hand of man. If you visit Fins for an exquisite meal, you will not be disappointed, but you will be missing the point. From the extensive, 30-page wine menu offering history and pedigree of every bottle, to the hand-picked crockery from Japan and France and Spain and the lavish yet comfortable Tardis of the dining room that transports you far away to different times and different places, the food is only one divinely created aspects of the experience.
We need to regress. We must slow down, take time, sample once more all that makes a true dining experience. With time constraints and social disconnect, we have forgotten what it is to enjoy a meal, as much for the temporary vacation in our days as for the food we consume.
Phone – 02 6674 4833
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/FinsRestaurant
Instagram – @finsrestaurant
Photos: Kirra Pendergast
– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Aug 31, 2015