The Sailors Club, Sydney restaurant review
Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Nicholas Watt
"Then you're dressing up for dinner, not black tie, but you know, a pretty Yves Saint Laurent gypsy dress, or Halston pyjamas with your resort jewellery." I've seen some funny things on menus. Mission statements. Quote-unquote philosophies. But I think this is the first time I've seen an out-and-out lifestyle prescription.
It seems to suggest that The Sailors Club was reverse-engineered from an idea of its look and feel.
In these days of the chef celebrity, the better (or at least more successful) restaurants start typically with the food, and then everything else coalesces around that. Here we start with a mood-board, with swatches of sarongs and clippings of a forgotten age in Palm Springs, Cap Ferrat and St-Barths. For a touchstone we have the work of Slim Aarons, an American society photographer who had come back from World War II with a firm notion that the only sort of beach worth landing on was one "decorated with beautiful, semi-nude girls tanning in a tranquil sun".
A book of pictures by Aarons sits on the desk by the door of The Sailors Club, and it's from William Norwich's introduction in Poolside with Slim Aarons that the quote on the menu is drawn. It's a handy litmus test: if that image is one you feel you can get on board with and enjoy, whether seasoned lightly with irony or perhaps simply because you happen to be wearing Halston pyjamas as you read it, then there's a good chance The Sailors Club will tickle your fancy. If the mere mention of resort jewellery makes you start looking for the nearest exit, then this isn't the restaurant for you. (And not everyone is a fan of the lifestyle. New York magazine rather tartly described the content of Norwich's column at Vogue as him frolicking "around the globe writing about the time he ate tomato salads with Vera Wang or the time he saw a socialite being pretty".)
One thing seems certain: the good people of Rose Bay and the surrounding suburbs have taken to it like schoolies to a hot tub. I've never seen this room anything like this busy. In the years that I knew this site as Pier, it was a lot of things - including GT's Restaurant of the Year in 2008, but buzz wasn't its hook. Pier chef-patron Greg Doyle is a co-owner, chef Steven Skelly now runs the kitchen, and Jacqui Lewis, Doyle's daughter, is behind its conception and design.
The new look is, in a word, yellow. This being an actual pier, the restaurant is surrounded on three sides by water, so the lines are boat-like, while the details are picked out in that brightest of hues: daffodil on the metal chairs, butter yellow on the (paper) napkins, the staff in mustard trousers, and a radiant butter on the patterned clipboard menu-holders. Giant rope-bound timber cotton reels and a banquette strewn with turquoise and apricot throw-cushions provide other seating options. Pretty girls sharing entrées of steamed asparagus spears with smoked almonds and almond aïoli and silver-bobbed women booming "Hello, Boo. How are you darling?" to one another supply the atmosphere.
If there's a link to the Pier of old, then it's the quality of the fish. Pier's menu used to include notes on where the fish was caught and how it was killed. At The Sailors Club you'll find details of the provenance of the waiters' shoes. But seafood remains one of the best options. The menu doesn't quite always chime perfectly with the pool-to-polo vibe, but the raw John Dory definitely ticks the box. The thin slices of pale protein are flecked with soft herbs and dressed with pink grapefruit and char-grilled chillies in the sort of proportion that makes it pop in the mouth and gives it a bit of warmth without entirely severing its connection with the sea. And the fish and chips is definitely the sort of thing that could rouse a person from even the deepest sun-lounge reverie. Nothing tricky about it - just good fresh flathead, juicy and flaking beautifully under a nicely fried crust of Cooper's (Pale) batter. Chips? Check. Caper-rich tartare? Check.
The "three-cut" burger (rib, hanger and rump when I had it) ticks the box, and the brick chicken, herbed up with oregano gremolata, is just as juicy. Chilled broccoli and zucchini soup isn't thrillingly clear in its taste, but the accessories are a win: lactic acidity from sheep's milk yoghurt, and nuttiness from a sprinkling of picada-like toasted rye crumbs. Prices are relatively small, and portioning is scaled accordingly.
Pier's lovely wine list has been one casualty of the do-over. There's good beer on tap, and interesting cocktails, but the current list, divided into wines "for quaffing" and a "selected" section of pricier stuff comes off as scatty rather than eclectic. And for a place dedicated to la vie en rose, it's also oddly light on rosé, and offers next to nothing from the south of France. Still, there's no reason to go thirsty, especially if you're confident enough to sift the list for yourself.
The level of training on show from the staff I've met means that the advice you'll get about what you might drink with your food doesn't get much more nuanced than the suggestion that you try a white with the fish and a red with the meat. I'm reminded here of the old "fast, cheap, good - pick any two" routine. The service at The Sailors Club is friendly and fast-paced, but attentiveness doesn't enter into it. Breeziness is part of the brief, certainly, but I don't think I'm being too much of a stuffed shirt to expect my drink to arrive before my entrée, or to get a spoon when I order soup, even at this relatively reasonable price-point. But hey, this is hardly the restaurant where you head to pound a quick two courses between Powerpoint presentations, and when the spoon finally arrives, it comes with a smile.
Desserts are something of a curiosity. Pastry chef Nic Waring is clearly very talented, but he's in that phase of his career where he prefers to deconstruct his tiramisù and serve his banoffee in a cocktail glass. His dishes are highly worked, appear to have come untranslated from the Pier days, and would mystify Slim Aarons. This is not to say they're not good - they're clever and impressive, if a little sugar-heavy at times - they just seem a bit off-message. If you prefer to close your meal without the benefit of anything involving liquid nitrogen or olive oil and coffee crumb, have the cheese instead.
The menu is more à la carte than sharing, but if snacking's your aim, hit the bar. The all-day lounge menu extends to the likes of white anchovies on toast, tartare of beef with Melba toast, fried peppers, plates of Spanish ham, and burgers. There's also a kids' menu, plus the offer of Campari and Aperol lollipops - more for mum and dad, mind, than little Ava and Sebastian. And what's more, there's more to come. This month should see plans to turn the site into a real beach club come to fruition, replete with watery frolics and deep-tanning. Time to dust off that coconut oil.
If there's a flaw in the The Sailors Club logic it's that the resorts it's channelling seldom have food this good. Which makes it, to paraphrase our old friend Norwich, somewhere to join attractive people doing attractive things in an attractive place and maybe eat some attractive food as well. St-Tropez and Palm Springs should be so lucky.
THE SAILORS CLUB
594 New South Head Rd, Rose Bay, (02) 9327 6561, thesailorsclub.com.au
Open Mon-Fri lunch midday-3pm, dinner 6pm-10pm; Sat-Sun midday-11pm. Lounge bar daily midday-11pm.
Cards AE D MC V EFT.
Prices Entrées $16-$18, main courses $23-$29, desserts $14-$20.
Wheelchair access No.
Vegetarian Two entrées, one main.
Noise Noisier than it's ever been.
Plus The Rose Bay pier comes alive.
Minus Not much attention to detail.