FREMANTLE, Australia — "It's really wonderful what's happened to Fremantle," said John Bertrand, the yachting skipper who won the America's Cup for Australia in 1983.
"Before we won the cup this was a drab little seaport town in Western Australia--few people even knew where Perth was--but now all these marvelous turn-of-the-century buildings have been restored, and the hotels and restaurants are thriving. This year we are the focus of the world and anybody who is important in sport will be here."
We are having coffee and croissants with Bertrand in a prime example of this refurbishment--the newly restored 1879-era Esplanade Plaza Hotel. Its airy blue and white atrium, furnished in white wicker and enhanced by towering palm trees, has become a favorite meeting place for those involved in the America's Cup yacht races running here until February.
"You won't see many crew members in the restaurants, though," says Bertrand, who is not racing this year but is director of the Bond Syndicate that owns yachts Australia II, III and IV. "They're up on the boats by 6 every morning and often have to work past 7 at night, so they don't have much time for socializing."
Others involved in the races, however, from owners to fans, are filling the cafes and restaurants of this town on the western coast of Australia just 10 miles from Perth, and the international clientele lends glamour and excitement to dining in Fremantle.
Fresh seafood is a main culinary feature here, and if you're planning to come to the yacht races you shouldn't miss such specialties as fresh oysters, Pacific lobster and dhufish, a sweet and tender whitefish similar to snapper.
The best restaurant in town--and one that could hold its own with any in Florence or Rome--is Club le Maschere, a creation of Ciga Hotels and the Costa Smeralda Yacht Club of Sardinia.
The restaurant is housed in a 19th-Century building across the esplanade park from where the yachts are moored. An elegant bar downstairs offers sleek, modern Italian design.
As we climbed the huge staircase the space of the dining room became apparent, a high-ceilinged room with commanding views of the esplanade. Waiters in formal dress move quietly among the tables and a huge antipasto selection is laid out in the center of the room.
Classic Italian Style
The menu offers a variety of Australian ingredients prepared in classic Italian style. We started with a cooked-to-perfection risotto with fresh vegetables and a tortellini with ricotta cheese.
For the main course we chose veal sauteed with white wine, lemon juice and parsley--European-style veal rich with flavor, and fresh dhufish sauteed in butter--succulent and sweet. The accompanying vegetables were fresh and tender. Desserts were profiteroles dripping in chocolate and an Italian strudel with cream.
This is the place to see the yacht captains, such as the Stars and Stripes' Dennis Conner, or sponsors such as the Aga Khan and Aldo Gucci. The tab for dinner with wine (a fine selection of Italian and Australian wines is available) is about $75 (Australian) per person, or $40 U.S. (All prices listed are in Australian dollars.)
A real find is Rumbles, a modern, California-style restaurant just a block from the old Rund House jail. Chef Gregory Green's cooking is original and imaginative. "I try never to cook any dish twice," he says. "I change the menu every six weeks and the daily specials are always different." He is 25 and already a first-rank chef.
We dined on fresh oysters glazed in a hot oven until the frothy Brie mousse was just browned, leaving the oysters barely warmed. A mushroom and dandelion soup was rich and flavorful. An entree of calamary was perfectly sauteed in a light dusting of flour. Each squid had been cut carefully to imitate the tentacles of a whole baby squid, but without the attendant toughness of real tentacles. (In Australia, "entree" means appetizer.)
The loin of venison was braised in claret and served with fresh apples cooked in port.
We recommend a Rumble Crumble for dessert. This is a mixture of fresh apples and boysenberries covered with a lightly crumbled crust and accompanied with fresh apple ice cream.
Although Rumbles is a very serious restaurant, food is only part of the experience. Instead of traditional chef's hats, Green and his staff wear Australian bush hats and entertain the patrons with an assortment of hand puppets.
To summon waitresses, Green squeaks a rubber bat hanging from the ceiling. "If people are having a good time at their work," he reasons, "what they do will be good."
This is Australia, after all, and nowhere do people know better how to have fun. Prices at Rumbles run $4-$9 for appetizers and $12-$16 for main courses. The Rumble Crumble is $5. Rumbles is a BYO restaurant (they don't serve alcohol, but you're welcome to bring your own bottle).