Set around the winding waters of the Wagonga Inlet, Narooma is a beautiful coastal town on the NSW South Coast, five hours drive from Sydney.
The Whale Motor Inn is perched on a hill overlooking the harbour entrance and Bar Beach. The fairly daggy, older-style low-rise motel has been transformed by the addition of large balconies, framing the wonderful view.
It’s the perfect place to kick back with some of the spoils from your drive – which for me included a cherry-red, gamey pinot noir from Lark Hill Winery in Bungendore.
As the light faded from the sky, we started to contemplate dinner. Another benefit of staying at the Whale Motor Inn is that their in-house dining option - The Whale Restaurant – also happens to be the best restaurant in town.
With bed a short stagger from the dining room, we get settled at our table with an excellent pair of Gin Mare martinis, dirtied up by quality olives and a rosemary sprig from the garden.
Bemoaning it being too dark to appreciate the view, we stay connected to the sea by consuming its bounty – Wagonga Inlet rock oysters.
They’re tight, tiny and briny, and presented three different ways on the menu – Natural ($3/each); with Local Pink Pepper and Verjuice Jelly ($3.50/each); and Grilled ($4/each) with beach spinach and Montague Island kina butter.
We hit up all three, though it’s the wonderful, gently grilled combination of oyster, warrigal greens harvested by the chef, and sea urchin roe that really turned my head. Across the course of 1500-odd restaurant reviews, this homage to the sea is a combination I’ve not tried before.
While it’s not much to look at on the plate, the Duck and Fennel Ragu ($17) presented on fluffy Robertson potato gnocchi and topped with Tilba Persian feta béchamel is so tasty, it’ll have you ordering bread to scrape up any remainders. The ragu has a citrussy nod to duck l'orange that keeps it from being too wintery.
The house-made Ciabatta ($7) is worth ordering regardless. Like the rest of Chef Matthew Hoar’s menu, it’s tightly connected to the South Coast. In this case the connection is the sprinkle of salt from the Wagonga Inlet sitting next to a golden sphere of kefir-cultured butter that Hoar has made himself.
From his own hometown of Dalmeny, ten minutes up the road, this ex-professional surfer turned chef gathers the grapefruit he uses in a slightly overcooked jammy condiment to cut the fatty intensity of his Slow Roasted Pork Belly ($18). Accompanied by cauliflower puree, purple cabbage sauerkraut and remoulade, the slab of crisp-skinned pig might not win any awards for originality, but it is a well-handled, competent dish.
The emphasis on locally grown produce is reflected in Hoar's use of The Whale Motel’s kitchen garden, which you may have walked past on your way to dinner. It means the produce on the plate is fresher – a fact that’s all too evident in the Mixed Leaves ($8) that arrives looking more like a growing plant than a salad. This stellar bowl of greenery has just been given a light house-preserved lemon and olive oil treatment.
To ensure we get to dessert, we enjoy the greens with a shared main of ‘Fisco’ Blue Fin Tuna ($37). Fisco refers to the Narooma trawler that caught the fish, which is presented in an earthenware skillet with a pork and prawn ravioli. The pink centred hunks of tuna (cooked exactly as we requested) are bathed in a wild kelp miso broth with broccoli, peppery Whale garden celery, and just enough chilli to get your lips tingling. This healthy dish is finished with sesame oil.
We share a modern Spiced Carrot Pudding ($17) dressed up with a maple cream cheese macaron, walnut praline and a smooth quenelle of buttermilk gelato as we try not to eaves drop on the next table.
It’s particularly hard because at it, Tony Jones (Q & A) and his partner, Sara Ferguson (Four Corners), are busily debating an issue. It makes for an exhilarating end to an above-average regional meal that concludes with a brief stagger back to our room.
Buoyed by this success, we return to The Whale Restaurant for breakfast. It’s a great opportunity to take in the amazing view, which we missed by arriving after dark the evening before.
While still employing local produce, like smoky bacon from Rapley’s the butcher next door, the breakfast dishes don’t reach the heights of dinner.
Rubbery Pancakes ($14) with maple syrup and bacon, whose rind has crackled from being stuck in an oven, don’t really impress. A side of Baked Beans ($4) eats better than the Chorizo, Spring Onion and Cheddar Omelette ($15) we order it with.
Coffee, juice you have to squeeze, and tea all come from a self-service buffet sideboard you can access for five dollars apiece. My guess is for breakfast, you could do better elsewhere in town before you set off to explore the area.
The Whale Restaurant
102 Wagonga Street, Narooma
Ph: (02) 4476 2411