Fun fact: Every year, 420,000 tonnes of octopus is harvested globally. Less than one per cent — about 400 tonnes — has MSC certification. Of those 400 tonnes, The Geraldton-based Abrolhos Octopus company is responsible for 150 tonnes. That’s the very definition of punching above your weight.
The Marine Stewardship Council is a global body, which certifies those fisheries that comply with its strict fishery management, sustainability and environment guidelines.
Abrolhos Octopus, we’re told, was quick to get off the blocks and open itself to the MSC’s rigorous auditing processes in pursuit of the coveted MSC certification. We reckon you can taste the difference. It’s an extraordinary product and Geraldton chef and restaurant owner Csaba Sellei sells it perfectly, yes perfectly, cooked at his restaurant Salt Dish.
Salt Dish is the epitome of a regional main street cafe in that it’s dining room is daggy and furnished with domestic tables and chairs. It’s homely in that raggedy-assed, anti-architectural way. There’s not a sign on the counter displaying the seven milkshake flavours on offer, but there could be. None of which matters a toss, because it is what it is and where it is and it’s lack of sophistication is a tonic to those of us who dine out a lot.
Sellei, a Hungarian emigre, is one of the happiest chefs we’ve met: laughing, smiling, bubbling with enthusiasm and customer love, he’s an antidote to the surly, entitled truculence often forced upon us by hyper-cool chefs in the big smoke.
If you want to chargrill octopus, you first have to poach or braise it in wine and aromatics for a couple of hours to tenderise it, let it set up and finally, chargrill it when an order comes in, to make it smoky and crusty and salty. Easy, right? Well, no.
There is a view that you just poach the scheisse out of it and it won’t matter — the softer, the better. Not really, no. Much of the chargrilled occy we’ve eaten over the years has been overcooked, mushy and flavourless. Timing and temperature is everything. Sellei’s version is as perfect as we’ve ever had. A bit of a bite, but tender, well charred and seasoned, and teamed with chermoula spices, smoked eggplant, charred red peppers and the cutest, most perfect dice of fried potatoes. It looked good. It tasted even better. $27. Lovely.
Salt Dish has a global brief. The menu includes lamb rendang with kaffir lime, twice-cooked pork belly with South Korean flavours, miso-cured yellowfin tuna and a crispy brisket with coconut dressing.
Crispy beef brisket, $26.50, could be code for overcooked and dry brisket. It’s a fatty cut but easy to render dry and stringy. Not here. Unctuous, massively flavoured and punchy, it’s not the best brisket we’ve eaten, but it’s damn fine and properly moistened with lime mayonnaise and garnished with Asian slaw and roasted peanuts. It’s fairly jumping out of its skin with flavour and boldness.
Pan-fried, free-range chicken, $28, is similarly well cooked. The garnishes and dressings are well balanced and thoughtfully deployed. The crusty chicken was teamed with a slippery almond puree, a buffalo mozzarella salad and prosciutto.
Cauliflower fritters, $24, were superb, too. “Green” couscous, currants and harissa yoghurt rounded out the dish.
On one level, Sellei’s dishes are simple cafe plates, but his cooking and technique are another level up. He sources and uses good produce. His food is unexpected in Geraldton and very welcome. All in all, a damn fine experience.
Geraldton also came as a nice surprise. We hadn’t been in more than a decade, and were delighted at the optimism and success, which seems to bubble out of the ground there.
A big shout-out, too, to the Gerald Hotel, a boutique 40-room, modern hotel with a rooftop bar and plenty of restrained and exciting designer touches. Who knew?
35 Marine Terrace, Geraldton | 9964 6030
Open Monday-Friday, breakfast, lunch, coffee. Friday-Saturday, dinner.
The buzz Terrific country town, main street cafe, punching above its weight. Fine cooking from a chef who knows his stuff. Wine list is small and just OK. Service is country cheerful. The chef should be given the keys to the city. He’s a treasure. 14/20