When I took my first bite of the tuna tostada, I was certain we were in for a good night. The bladework on the fish demonstrates knowledge and care, and the pairing of avocado and lime mayo makes for a perfectly balanced covering for the tostada chip. Beside it on the table, the ‘local fish ceviche’ is served in a skull-sized, coconut shell; the slices of bream sitting thumb-deep in a tiger’s milk liquor of lime, bright-green cherry tomatoes, mild chillies, coriander and cucumber. Although bream wouldn’t usually be my first choice of fish for a ceviche, it’s fresh and undeniably local. I had seen plate-sized bream circling the wharf pylons when I explored the water’s edge prior to the reservation. And, after tasting this unimprovable version, I think bream will now be my first choice for tiger’s milk ceviche. So far, so great.
Quarterdeck is housed in an old-style, timber oyster shed, built out over the inexplicably blue waters of the Wagonga Inlet in Narooma, a five-hour drive south of Sydney. All tables have a view of the azure-blue inlet through white-painted window frames, and the décor is unmistakably Polynesian. The cocktail bar is fringed with seagrass, and there are vintage black-and-white portraits of Samoan royalty. The décor appears to be a nod to its former life as a Tiki-style band venue. The illuminated sign over the front door still describes Quarterdeck as ‘The Little Red House of Tunes’.
The next dish out is the charcoal grilled citrus pork belly, served with charred pineapple salsa, coriander and jalapeno in a soft taco. The tacos are loaded with such generosity that, no matter how I choose to make my assault, it’s always going to collapse into a beautifully charred and gelatinous, pineapple mess. A delicious one, too.
Quarterdeck also shakes, stirs and pours ‘reimagined Tiki-style cocktails’. I go for the Watermelon Sugar, which is a fruity and refreshing blend of gin, apricot brandy, violet liquor and watermelon shrub (vinegar poured over watermelon). It’s served over ice with a pair of skewered Haribo-style watermelon gummies on top. Next, a Mai Tai, which is sour, citrus forward and gun-metal dry, and a cracking rendition of an old classic.
For mains, we go for the grilled swordfish and roasted spatchcock. The swordfish arrives with roasted garlic, peppery watercress, and a punchy lemon and oregano salsa. While succulent and well-seasoned, the piece of swordfish is cut quite thick and as a result, isn’t as warm inside as I would have liked it to be. We also order the spatchcock – its skin is bronzed and crackles at the bite, though the flesh is a touch too dry.
We finish with pineapple sorbet with lime and lychee granita, and, as a second choice, the beignets dulce de leche. The sorbet is bright and uplifting, but the granita has refrozen and clumped together, and it needs some hacking to break it into bite-size chunks. The beignets arrive wrapped in brown paper. The outside has a wafer-like crust, almost reminiscent of Indian poori, without a hint of oiliness. They open to reveal a beautifully fluffy interior with all the savoury sophistication of a bubbly sourdough. The dolce de leche is thick and sweet, and it’s clear the chef has taken it right to the edge of bitterness without crossing over. They are the grown-up-est versions of a doughnut you can imagine.
After paying the bill, we step out into the night-time rain and looked over the misty estuary at the blinking of red and green navigation lights while I dialled the local taxi number – no answer. I looked for an Uber – no such thing. I called a different taxi company – no answer. We returned inside and the maître d' cheerfully informed us that Narooma is ‘notorious for not having taxis’. She then retrieved a roll of garbage bags and long-bladed scissors from under the cash register and expertly cut us two makeshift ponchos for the thirty-minute walk back to our hotel. Talk about good service.
As we set out in heavy rain, the echoing calls of night birds, the misty streetlights, and the rhythm of our squelching shoes on the south-coast road only added to, what felt like, an authentic Narooma experience.
With picturesque views, some of the best starters I’ve ever had, and a relaxed, charming atmosphere, Quarterdeck is a gem on the idyllic south coast. And while some of the mains slightly missed the mark on this occasion, and the oyster-farming origins of the building presented some challenges (there’s only one bathroom, which isn’t enough for a 60-seat restaurant; and at times the room got smoky from the kitchen), I know I will be drawn back to it next time I find myself in this seaside town. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Narooma, I recommend you stop by Quarterdeck, too.