Just north of Manly you’ll find Freshwater, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it beachside suburb that radiates laid-back, coastal living. It’s one of those Place That Time Forgot kind of vibes, where the power of the ocean permeates every street corner, where it feels like you should never be in a rush and should always be wearing a smile and a pair of Havaianas.
There are some great places to eat and drink in Freshie: fine-dining institution Pilu has it’s imperious home here, overlooking the beach; the newly renovated ‘Hilton’ or Harbord Hotel is a stone’s throw up the street and has stepped up it’s offering; Stowaway Bar cranks out the good times, keeping the locals happy; and now it has St Alma, the new offering from chef Tim Christensen and Jack Leary. The pair opened Alma Avalon in 2017 and have watched it become a favourite amongst locals way up on the Peninsula. On the back of this success the pair have returned to Freshwater to open St Alma in the very site they had initially dreamed of opening Alma five years earlier.
Located on the main drag, Albert Street, the upmarket Mexican restaurant is set in the old Bendigo Bank site, and turns out it was an inspired choice to return. White exteriors and large windows give a breezy first impression. The interior is spacious and comfortable, the fit-out thoughtful and well executed. Clusters of pendant lights with large bulbs alongside warm strip lighting play a big part in the ambience of the room. A large open kitchen with gallery seating sizzles to the left as you enter, the bar at the other end of the room keeps guests lubricated and conversations flowing. The glorious windows accommodate diners at high stools for a meal with a view to the street outside. The main floor is set up for both larger groups and more intimate affairs with plenty of romantic two-tops. By day an airy, light-filled space. By night a heaving, buzzing celebration of La Vida Hermosa.
We’ve long had a love-affair with Mexican food over here but it seems that only recently has the calibre really started to lift, and St Alma is taking the quality of it’s food seriously. The menu is inspired by coastal Mexico and the street food you might encounter there, with local seafood and produce featuring heavily. Soft-shell crab tostadas with guac, crispy bacon and truffle oil might look slightly terrifying but are a satisfying explosion of textures and flavours. Hard shell sashimi taco is a real highlight; pico de Gallo and jalapeño adding a well-judged heat and zing to the salmon sashimi and the ubiquitous avocado bringing the creaminess to the mouthful. Amberjack tiradito (a Japanese-influenced Peruvian dish similar to ceviche) is a party in your mouth. Bite-sized and an absolute flavour bomb, the thinly sliced kingfish is layered with sweet pickled radish, cherry tomato, a touch of avocado cream and then drizzled with fresh lime juice. All three of these smaller dishes crackle with ideas and energy, and collectively are an excellent example of how the skilful interplay between textures and flavours can enhance any dish.
The dish of the night though has to be El Diablo Octopus. A huge pile of octopus hands are garnished with crispy kale chips, seasoned with thyme and lemon oil, and ringed by a brilliantly orange-red coloured fermented El Diablo chilli sauce. The octopus itself is charred and chewy on the outside and incredibly tender on the inside; yet another triumph of textures. Drinks are a serious proposition here too. The wine-list is surprisingly deep and you won’t have a difficult time picking something out but we all really come for the tequila and mezcal, right? The cocktail list finds it focus here and it is the list of six different margaritas that holds our gaze; surely this humble cocktail was invented for the beach so it’s only right to indulge. The Tommies and the Paloma are pure refreshment, while the Jalapeño margarita packs the perfect amount of heat. You can pimp it up with the Make it Rain margarita, which uses Herradura Ultra for the extra-luxe experience. Or you can go full Gringo and explore one of the tasting flights, focussing on tequila, Herradura or Mezcal. Next time for sure.
Just as with Alma in Avalon, St Alma has seamlessly slotted into its Freshwater home. Offering an elevated take on Mexican food and capturing the essence of carefree days by the coast, this should remain a firm favourite of the Freshie dining scene. The food is vibrant, full of flavour and, of course, avocado and chilli abound. The contrasts of spicy-sweet-earthy-crunchy alongside the stunningly vibrant colours are a theme across the menu, and practically whisk you away to the Mexican sunshine. The menu here is a long one, but one you’d happily eat anything from. We guess that means another visit soon.