Occasionally, you discover an absolute regional gem on the back of a very solid recommendation from clued up locals. Surprisingly, the reviewing team in that area overlooked “Fig” in Sawtell, which is one such case. Chef Phil Woolaston (ex Fins) is an unassuming ambassador dedicated to showcasing the best produce of the Mid North Coast region and its surrounds. Underpinned by the technical expertise to implement this sustainable philosophy, Fig has the perfect direction a memorable regional restaurant should aspire to. Nicely positioned on the corner of the spectacularly tree-lined main street with a modest yet warm and inviting room, Fig welcomes the ebb and flow of the small village during service, with the doors and windows fully open to embrace the refreshing sea breeze.
The small bites menu sets the tone, with some cracking lamb, pine nut and manchego cheese empinadas ($5). It is very tidy pastry work, with a residual heat note and noteworthy chimichurri, delivering in spades. Delicate yet crisp rice paper ($5) is served with nicely balanced eggplant relish providing a nice point of contrast. Portuguese fish cakes ($5) hit the right texture, with the subtle smoked paprika aioli working particularly well. The smoky Spanish meatballs ($5), despite having a lively heat note, just needed more of a wetter element for my liking. The wine list, predominantly comprised of a well-priced selection of very respectable Australian and NZ wines, deserve the vintages to be noted, as the matching possibilities and stemware is very good. Service strikes the right balance between being “regional friendly” and professional, exactly fitting the context and level of food on the well-balanced menu.
Grilled tender boneless quail ($17), with intriguing organic grains and roasted corn, providing an effective textural contrast, is simply finished with oregano, lemon, and romesco sauce to balance the dish out nicely. Chef Phil Woolaston reveals later that he prefers to use grains for contrast, differing from the traditional use of butter and cream, which apart from being far healthier, provides an alternative perspective, with no dish the lesser for it. Textbook slow cooked pork cheek ($17) is taken to another level, with a sticky seductive and aromatic honey licorice grain crusted glaze. The dish is counterbalanced with pickled nashi pear, radish and celeriac. However, the croutons seem a touch superfluous. Chargrilled octopus ($17), with a particularly memorable chorizo from Bellingen Meats, Dutch cream potatoes, roasted capsicum and lemon balm sauce, is the very definition of cohesion on a plate.
Sublime crispy fried duck ($33), with a divine chilli mandarin caramel crust, is a sigh worthy take on szechuan; served with evenly seared scallops, lively asian greens, steamed rice, and star anise jus. A massive portion of herb roasted yellow fin tuna, with baby cos, Bellingen Meats speck, celeriac, sourdough croutons, crispy polenta, and smoked paprika aioli; does not reach the same lofty heights, but nonetheless is a very solid dish. A spectacularly generous portion of well-seasoned Milly Hill Lamb flavoursome rump cut ($33) is simply cooked beyond compare. The mixed grains work perfectly as a textural element, with the onion chickpea puree, minted yoghurt, and port thyme jus, bringing the dish together perfectly. It is some of the most joyously cohesive and robust cooking that just makes me want to return immediately for more. Crunchy polenta chips ($7), with house made tomato jam, is as good, if not better, than some of the more benchmark examples doing the rounds in the “big smoke”.
The warm fig and walnut cake ($14) is absolutely flawless, comforting, and entirely moreish. The rich nocino caramel sauce is a perfect match to the flavour profile of the pudding, with exceptional candied walnuts, and vanilla ice cream. This is evidence that when a fundamentally simple dessert is executed well, the art of deconstruction has long since outlived its usefulness. Cherry Ripe by fig ($14), with rich chocolate, coconut and cherries; is the generous sum of its parts, providing a playful take on the obvious inspiration behind it. The floral orange blossom cassonade ($14), essentially a crème brûlée, is a textural symphony of almond praline, fresh dates, amaretto gel, which is finished with a divine side of nougat ice cream.
Fig in Sawtell is refreshingly earnest about what it delivers on the plate. Local artisan produce is treated with the same level of respect for where it was raised or grown, and in essence that philosophy is destined to succeed forever in bringing immense joy to the diner. The comforting flavour driven food, served in a warm relaxed environment, is the very epitome of what a regional restaurant should be. Also, the humility of Fig’s promise of “gathering seasonal foods provided by nature and grown by dedicated producers”, amounts to more than just a few well phrased words. It may be unrecognised by the food guides at this moment, although food this exceptional always commands its own voice; which will eventually speak for the entire region that it celebrates. Meanwhile, I am more than happy to share this well-kept secret with you…
Cnr First and Boronia Streets, Sawtell
Open six nightly from 5.30pm (closed Tuesdays)
Reservations: 02 6658 3658