THERE’S a buzz in the air at Esmay, the new three-month pop-up restaurant in Noosa from award-winning, ex-Arc Dining chef Alanna Sapwell.
Taking over the stunning waterfront space formerly occupied by Japanese fine diner Wasabi, the recently opened eatery is packed on a Saturday night. Many are groups of friends boisterously catching up over drinks, while a soundtrack spinning from Get Down On It by Kool & The Gang to Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman pumps in the background.
It’s a restaurant that is lively, fun and energetic, and as you work your way through the smart and enticing global wine list or exceptionally well-priced $40 drinks pairing, it’s hard not to want to get up and dance.
But there’s also a sense of sophistication and elegance to the space. This comes thanks to white linen tablecloths, moody lighting and a charming, well-drilled service team, largely trained by former Wasabi owner Danielle Gjestland, which doesn’t skip a beat.
The menu is set and terrific value at $60 per person, offering multiple, snack-size dishes and a slightly larger plate to finish. There is also the option of oysters, three sides, two desserts and a cheese plate for an extra cost.
Sapwell is determined to hero local, Sunshine Coast produce and have it guide the dishes and, as such, the menu changes every few days based on what is best from, say, her fishmonger or perhaps at Gjestland’s nearby Honeysuckle Farm, which is growing many of the unique herbs and edible floral garnishes.
First out of the kitchen is a trio of bites, all simple and elegant to look at, but each delivering a balanced but powerful flavour punch. While the mini spanner crab slider is sure to be a crowd pleaser, arguably the most exciting is the halved baby cucumber, poised like a boat with a white anchovy, the cold egg sauce gribiche and a sprinkle of dried perilla its juicy and refreshingly acidic passengers.
Four more plates come out, led by locally caught black snapper, served raw and meltingly fresh with impossibly fine rings of pickled onion, muntries and a potato wafer so good it should come by the bag. But nipping at the dish’s heels for top honours are crispy vinegar pigs’ ears and fried salt bush leaves, which would make a terrific bar snack, and charred witlof that’s hard caramelisation delivers both sweet and bitter notes.
The largest plate of the night is Mooloolaba swordfish: three 1cm-thick, just-seared slices carefully laid across a bed of conversation-stopping sweet roasted red capsicums in olive oil with a smattering of seaweed and snow pea pieces. It’s bloody delicious and, perhaps by coincidence, reminiscent of a dish once served at Noosaville’s Thomas Corner Eatery, where Sapwell did her apprenticeship under former owner David Rayner.
Sapwell also uses her experience at one of Australia’s best fish restaurants, Saint Peter in Sydney, to create her potato scallop side ($5). The spud cakes are battered in a special vodka mix which delivers a coating crisper than a winter’s morning in Tasmania.
While for dessert, a classic frangipane tart ($12) is elevated with rhubarb, begonia stems disguised as rhubarb and elderflower, which is then drizzled with two-year-old fermented honey. When COVID-19 was blamed for closing down Arc Dining at Howard Smith Wharves in Brisbane, Sapwell was excited to go out on her own. While Esmay may only be for three months, it’s allowing her to cook her style of food without limitations: fun, edgy, retro-inspired and brimming with flavour and freshness. Plus with formidable Gjestland as her mentor in running a restaurant, Sapwell is sure to make this more than just a flash in the pan.
2 Quamby Pl, Noosa
Wed-Sat dinner, Sun lunch
Cucumber with gribiche
VERDICT (scores out of 5)
Originally published as The best restaurant I’ve eaten at this year