Trust Lismore to be staying ahead in the avant-garde pack. Last year, 2014, laneways perpetuated the Sydney–Melbourne sibling rivalry for urban chic.
The Loft Restaurant found its unprepossessing - what would a laneway be, if not this? - nook in Nesbitt Lane in Lismore’s picturesque CBD block, under the art-deco, heart-red signage of AGR, a remnant of a former department store. The restaurant has picked up the red in its corkscrew-pour-of-red-wine-from-a-glass logo.
A narrow, single front door opens onto a view of the galley kitchen on the right, with Grant Gordon and apprentice, Kieran Foster, as smiling chefs, and ever-accommodating co-owner/manager Ann Watson at the bar on the left.
The Loft has long been a dining presence in Lismore, but with Grant and Ann taking over in 2011, it featured new décor and menus characterised by Grant's take on food: the pleasure of seasonal, locally sourced produce cooked in the vein of Australian contemporary cuisine with a European influence.
Follow a short flight of deck-like stairs up to the loft, home to the dining area. Candles, bentwood chairs, corrugated iron, wood, neutral-toned walls, pastel lanterns and fresh flowers make the split-level, compact, open-ended rectangle a comely, contemplative space for the appreciating of fresh, local food in inventive couplings. (The patrons were also a mix of age and gender.)
Parmesan added piquancy to shoe-string fries as starters, and with a finely judged amount of salted ricotta and white balsamic, vine tomato quarters suddenly became revelatory chunky-bite appetisers, alongside the freely available olive-hued oil and light-crusty bread.
Pedigree and flair
Originally from New Zealand, Grant became an executive chef at just 21 at the Museum of Sydney Café, and continued at a number of that city’s top restaurants including the famous Bills of Bill Granger. So his flair for inventive ingredient combinations has been honed and tested in the challenging Sydney market.
But Grant’s original impulse for jouissance in food, as well as in life, came from his parents “who were always cooking and experimenting with different flavours and growing a lot of their own produce”.
Equally, he enjoyed studying home economics from age 12 and loved it, despite being “a bit of a joke as the only boy in the class”.
The hand-made tagliatelle with peas, a lemon wedge, and confetti of pan-fried pancetta as an entrée serve was, indeed, an inspired-ly generous idea from the kitchen.
The seared, toy-tip-truck-like oblong of barramundi sat on a bed of spring asparagus, and in the vegetarian dish, carrot chips mixed it up with their colour-coordinated partner, sweet potato rounds that milled with chickpea tabouli and salted ricotta, alongside their guest of honour, charred zucchini flowers.
The barra was served in a sea-blue, terra-cotta rimmed, semi-rustic bowl from the Jamie Oliver collection, sand-coloured for the vegetable dish and white for the pasta.
The knock-out impeccable table service provider, Johnny Dodds, recommended the 'local' 2012 Kurrajong Downs Sunset Rosé, made by the inimitable Mike Hayes who has his own label, Symphony Hill, up the road from Tenterfield in Queensland's Granite Belt.
A bright, pinkish cherry red, with a vanilla and rose-cream perfume, this Cab Sav sangiovese-style rosé has an immediate lightly weighted palate but great length, staying with you in an enforced slow drinking, with bottle poured expertly by Dodds, end held and top label showing.
I wonder if you could do a blind tasting of a chef's food and recognise the style? Ginger-beer sorbet, meringue, candied pineapple, pineapple sherbet and mascarpone read like a Grant Gordon to me.
This dessert looks like a mini Arctic paradise, with a touch of sun. The squares of pineapple are sweet sea-water, the strings of peel sherbet a kind of slim, sweet coral, alongside the miniature ice flows of meringue surrounding the ginger sorbet glacier.
Welcome to the natural chic of Lismore laneway dining, avant of big city derrière garde.
The Loft: Nesbitt Lane, CBD, Lismore, NSW, Australia, www.theloftrestaurant.com.au
Moya Costello teaches in the Writing program, School of Arts and social Sciences, Southern Cross University. She also teaches Food and Wine Writing for the School of Tourism.