With international travel off the menu for the foreseeable future, it’s hardly surprising that many of us are taking to the road to explore our own backyard.
The time and money normally spent on foreign holidays is being funnelled back into the domestic economy – COVID-19 restrictions permitting – and it’s a shot in the arm for the beleaguered hospitality industry.
Now is the nation’s chance to show the average Aussie that the grass is not always greener on the other side; that you don’t need to leave the country to enjoy exceptional food and wine experiences.
I’m reminded of this as my husband and I are on the NSW Far South Coast for a couple of days of R&R, settling in at Banksia Restaurant in the heart of Pambula, a pretty village between Eden and Merimbula just under three hours’ drive from Canberra.
A heritage building that was once Pambula’s Old Bank is now an elegant restaurant that has become a firm favourite of locals since it opened in late 2018.
Chef Huw Jones, who runs Banksia Restaurant with his wife, Renee Loftus, as front of house, comes with a solid pedigree, having spent two years working with Tetsuya Wakuda in Sydney, as well as a stint at Margaret River’s Amberley Estate Restaurant.
However, Huw and Renee are best known for running the hatted Zanzibar restaurant in Merimbula for five years, alongside Huw’s brother, Gus, a former executive pastry chef at Sydney’s award-winning Quay.
The pastel blue building on Pambula’s main street had long been on Huw and Renee’s radar, and after the lease on Zanzibar was up, the stars aligned and the Old Bank came onto the market.
“It was our dream house,” says Renee, who was born in Pambula. “We’d always wanted our own place with some land out the back.”
The building now doubles as home and work for the pair and their 22-month-old son, George.
There’s a chilly wind outside so we’re happy to be in the pretty dining room, warmed by an open fire with polished wooden floor boards, starched white tablecloths and dark bentwood chairs adding to its cosiness. The old bank vault door is a reminder of the building’s history.
Banksia Restaurant offers a three-course set menu, and tonight it’s Eden Mussels with homemade brioche and vermouth for starters, followed by pork loin, fennel and green beans, roast potatoes, eggplant cream and salsa verde. Dessert is pineapple and macadamia tart with coconut cream and liquorice ice-cream.
I’m excited about the starter, having visited the Eden Mussels boat at nearby Twofold Bay a day earlier, where they sell to locals and in-the-know tourists the molluscs that are not being sent off to restaurants and seafood markets across the eastern seaboard.
Huw’s starter epitomises how to do the very best with a hero ingredient. His homemade brioche serves as a base for the plump and perfectly cooked mussels, soaking up the creamy vermouth sauce. It’s a stunning dish – one of those things you know you’re going to pine for long after you’ve left the restaurant. I could have eaten another serve without taking a breath.
The pork main is a generous ensemble of all that’s good in the world. Crisp roast potatoes with fluffy centres, tender pork loin ringed with crackling that snaps in just the right way, some greens and salsa verde to cut through the richness.
COVID-19 restrictions mean there are two set dinner services, the first at 5.30 pm and the second at 7.30 pm. Renee says that despite the restricted numbers, the structure of it makes it easier to manage. Some days it’s simply Renee on service and Huw in the kitchen, but more often than not they are ably assisted by a handful of former Zanzibar staff who’ve stuck with them through the move.
Less than two years after opening Banksia Restaurant, Huw and Renee are already planning to expand the restaurant dining room and put additional tables in the back courtyard.
The future is looking bright, despite the impact of the pandemic.
“We had a great winter,” says Renee. “The locals really supported us. We had a lot of people telling us they needed us to stay open – people were even buying gift vouchers to help us out. It was really lovely.”
With a warm welcome and impeccable service, paired with an impressive three-course menu offered at just $75 per person, it’s little wonder the locals are keen to make sure Banksia stays put. This unexpected find in a small coastal village represents the very best of Aussie hospitality.
Banksia Restaurant is open for dinner from Thursday to Saturday (5:30 pm and 7:30 pm sittings) and for Sunday lunch at 11:30 am and 1:30 pm. Set menus are $75 per person, or $110 per person with matched wines.