We were running late, as usual, and didn’t have a lot of time to search around town for the restaurant. Fortunately, when the address you’re looking for is “Fleur’s Place, The Old Jetty, Moeraki, New Zealand” you can be pretty sure that there’s not much else in town.
Moeraki is on a tiny peninsula jutting into the vast Pacific Ocean, and on its lone, weather-beaten pier rests Fleur’s Place, a corrugated tin clubhouse that doubles as a destination dining experience. The once-bustling pier was where Moeraki competed with, and ultimately lost to, its northern neighbor Oamaru as the shipping hub for the area.
We learned of this hidden little gem a few months ago, when someone handed Chrstina a copy of Fleur Sullivan’s autobiography. One of New Zealand’s most well-known and influential chefs, she rose to national fame managing Oliver’s, an innovative restaurant and lodge in Central Otago. After reading her book and learning about her new concept: seafood straight from the boat to plates; her restaurant in Moeraki quickly rose to the top of our to-do list.
Like the rest of New Zealand, Fleur’s Place is casual, welcoming, and a little rough around the edges. The aesthetic is best illustrated by the array of mismatched teacups and saucers perched on the bar: what was once precious is now a little absurd. And the parallels here to other high-end cooking are almost too easy. As gourmet food has veered further and further toward molecular gastronomy and farther from its, well, bread and butter: delicious, fresh ingredients; it’s become a caricature. I’d rather ultra-fresh ingredients than foams any day. And most of all, that’s what Fleur’s Place hammered home: sometimes it’s not about complicated recipes or processes, but sourcing excellent, locally produced ingredients and getting out of the way.
While the menu has its share of classics and old standbys, we never considered anything but the fresh fish for which Fleur’s Place is famous. The seafood chowder was thick and heavy on shellfish that tasted like they’d hopped off the rocks and into the pot. New Zealand’s famous green-lipped mussels, cockles, and clams were the stars of the rich, tomato-based soup, slicing through with savory meatiness.
The day’s catch was blue cod, brill, sole, tarakuhi, and moki. Cod is somewhat of a workhorse fish, used frequently for the popular and ubiquitous fried fish and chips, so it wasn’t the obvious choice for a nice meal out. But just because something is common (and commonly done badly) doesn’t mean it can’t be delicious. And it turned out to be the perfect example of the point: use good ingredients and get out of the way.
A year ago, I never would have lobbied for a whole fish versus fillets. The sight and thought of the fish head staring back at me and the prospect of picking through tons of little bones to get every last bit of flesh off the skeleton would have directed me elsewhere. But not anymore. Through our experiences traveling (butchering, fishing, dealing with carcasses) I’m far more comfortable staring down a whole fish and digging the delicious medallions of meat out of his/her cheeks. Plus, filleting a fish leaves a lot of delicious meat on the bone. I’ll happily deal with a few bones if it means having enough left over (after completely over-eating) for fish tacos the next day. Bring it on.
Grilled and doused in a caper berry (not to be confused with their little brothers, capers) and almond brown butter, it was decadent but not excessive. The proportions of ingredients were exact, allowing the fish to stand on its own, complimented (but not dominated) by the salty caper berries and crunchy almond slices. And why else would you go to a seafood restaurant than to eat fish that tastes like fish? Too often a plate of butter is substituted for decent, fresh seafood. Not at Fleur’s.
Maybe its the rustic setting, or the fish gutting station outside the kitchen door, or the dish towels hanging to dry in the sun just beyond the view of diners, but Fleur’s has authenticity bursting from its seams. Don’t come to be entertained by tricks of the kitchen, come for the freshest fish imaginable and simple, skilled preparation.