Fine wining & dining in the Hunter Valley
Exercise is on the menu following my return from three weeks of fine wining and dining in Australia. Having spent the last two weeks in the Hunter Valley, I had a great opportunity to check out some of its top dining spots. If you’re Hunter-bound or fancy a country break within striking distance of Sydney, you’ll find my top tips below.
Spicers Vineyard Estate Retreat/Botanica
Owned by husband and wife team Mark and Belinda Stapleton, Spicers Vineyard Estate is one of the loveliest places I’ve stayed during my travels to Australia this last 11 years – service is very personable and warmly attentive. Mark is an acclaimed chef so the restaurant here, Botanica, is also top notch. Even breakfast was pretty special – the out-of-town judges staying at Spicers were the envy of the local Hunter Valley Wine Show judges! Fortunately the HVWS Chair’s dinner was held at Botanica. Chef’s garden paid dividends with the amuse (pictured) & impressive vegetarian options such as Chef’s Garden, globe artichoke, organic root vegetables, white balsamic, black olive.
Margan Cellar Door & Restaurant
Husband & wife/winemaker & chef team Andrew and Lisa Margan’s cellar door restaurant is well worth the short hop off the beaten track to Broke Fordwich, a Lower Hunter Valley sub-region.
Veggies and salad leaves come from the garden – refreshing to see carrots whole and celebrated for themselves instead of pureed/reduced etc! This elegant main of perfectly cooked John Dory, clams, fennel, Noilly Prat blew me away.
Muse at Hungerford Hill Cellar Door
Muse Restaurant at Hungerford Hill is Megan and Troy Rhoades-Brown’s original restaurant. This is sophisticated dining with cutting edge techniques aplenty – loved the between course miso “tea” with lemon grass. Either side? Sashimi of Hiramasa Kingfish fennel, apple, our own verjuice, Coppersfolly wasabi yoghurt followed by a super moist Confit Petuna Ocean Trout seaweed risotto, pickled daikon, broccolini. Very fine. Under the same ownership, I’m told Muse Kitchen at Keith Tulloch cellar door offers great brasserie-style dining.
EXP. at Oakvale Cellar Door
EXP.’s pocket-sized restaurant bursts with creative energy. I wasn’t surprised to hear that Chef Frank Fawkner worked at Muse. He brings the lightest of touches and great precision to small plates dining, just like young gun winemaker James Becker next door. Check out his Warm blue cheese, brioche, honey and marigold and you’ll see what I mean.
Esca Bimbadgen at Bimbadgen Cellar Door
I’d eaten at Esca Bimbadgen on both my previous visits and the food is consistently good – these days under Cape exec chef Jonathan Heath. I took my cue from winemaker Rauri Donkin and plumped for the pan-seared, line caught fish of the day (dhu fish) with caramelised cauliflower, cashew lemon crumble, verde velouté, zucchini. Portions are generous so I was glad to stick just with a main at lunch. That said, this amuse tickled the taste buds!
The name gives away why The Cellar, a Hunter institution, remains so popular with winemakers. The wine list majors on local wines, with a dozen available by the glass. The menu is not as adventurous or showy (in the nicest sense) as the others, putting locally sourced fish and meat at its core. A good thing when wine was the chief focus at the Hunter’s Options Lunch Group last week. Pan fried barramundi and a perfectly al dente pea risotto with truffle oil and parsnip crisps skilfully complimented a fine selection of Grand Cru Burgundy.