Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Where the heart is

The choice of restaurants in the Hunter Valley surprised me with its vastness, with lots of fine dining, modern Australian, a few hats, and a pleasing focus on regional ingredients and produce. One theory is that the abundance of good wine goes hand in hand with good food. Whatever the reason, it’s a fulfilling, tummy-expanding exercise that I took upon with glee during my long weekend in wine country.

The late night drive was dark and gravelly, and the car thermometer indicated a chilling three degrees Celsius outdoors – a thought (and feeling) we overcame with the idea of fireplaces and a glass of wine. The Peppers Guest House lodging is particularly homey with numerous wood-burning fireplaces certainly helping the warm ambience. The restaurant, Chez Pok was perfect for romantic dinners, evidenced by the plethora of couples in the dimmed and subdued outer (but still warm) dining area.

Amuse bouche from Chez Pok, Pepper Guest House, Ekerts Road, Pokolbin

Presented with an innovative and quite exciting menu, I’m torn all over the page finally settling on two courses with some wintery heartiness. We’re started with an amuse of sage foam atop a creamy sage soup with a fried sage leaf feather in the cap. It’s an intriguing homage to the fragrant herb; likeable but not lovable. We’re further warmed by the Margan Barbera, an Italian style red which was a bit sharp at times, but agreeable with the much-anticipated meal.

Steamed scallop and yabby lasagne with a shellfish cappuccino, curried cauliflower

I was in the mood for pasta and unexpectedly found it in the form of the steamed scallop and yabby lasagne – a mollusc and a crustacean of which I adore equally. I hadn’t expected the flattish cylindrical shape, nor the slightly unappetising hue of the shellfish foam under the lasagne, but I was keen to like the dish as the combination of listed flavours sounded appealing.

The pasta was thin and silky; more like Chinese dumpling wrappers than a fresh, eggy pasta. The seafood turned out to be, a little disappointingly, in minced form with few discernable pieces of each scallop and yabby; but it did have the exquisite fresh-sweet flavour of seafood. More disappointing was the yabby claw, probably present for more visual appeal than any sustenance or flavour addition.

Most surprising and satisfying was the puree of curried cauliflower – a completely unexpected but most harmonious flavour with the seafood lasagne; and much more impressive than the shellfish cappuccino which, while not overly strong in flavour, would have been improved as a more airy component, I think, than its liquid pool construction.

Caramelised veal sweetbreads, Jerusalem artichoke puree, mushroom tarte fine

The first time I came across sweetbreads on a menu, I’m pretty sure I thought brioche. Lucky for me I don’t think I’ve ever ordered it for I would have been in for quite a surprise. Still not big on the organ/offal deal, I am even less keen on glands of a young cow. Nonetheless, when forced to try a mouthful I bite into the lovely, rich caramelised surface of the surprisingly chewy sweetbread (as I had expected the mushy texture of liver), eventually getting to a mildly metallic flavour I then just had to swallow and wash down with wine.

I was much happier trying the smooth, naturally sweet Jerusalem artichoke puree and buttery thin mushroom tarte fine; though perhaps the gland would have been more pleasant with these accompaniments.

Roast partridge with Marsala poached date and foie gras, confit legs, pomme puree

Continuing on the theme of daring foods (or perhaps I’m tame and exaggerate a little) was the little-seen partridge – two ways, one particularly striking. Or perhaps I should say strutting. With claws and toes hanging off the edge of the plate, it was one confronting pair of confit legs but tasty and tender enough to ignore the nether regions.

The cube of the roast partridge was imposing in comparative size – what a lot of flesh for such little legs! It was filled with a quite sweet stuffing of Marsala poached dates and subtle foie gras – the sometimes overpowering sweetness of the fortified wine not one of my favourite flavours.

Sticky beef cheek, celeriac puree, broad beans, speck, bone marrow

I thought there was no going wrong with the sticky beef cheek on the menu and when it came to the table, I was so very right. The huge hunk of the deep coloured beef cheek sat in the centre, with an appealing dab of celeriac puree festively decorated with vibrant green broad beans and pink-red batons of speck – a winning combination, by the way.

I could have eaten with a spoon, or cut it with a single chopstick, so soft was the beef cheek. It was full of hours of flavour and such the filling winter warmer that I was thankful for the presence of the slight bitterness of the celeriac over what could have been a rich pomme puree instead.

Adding to the decadence were gold coins of bone marrow in what was probably the crunchiest deep fried crumb coating I’ve ever come across – a seriously impressive contrast to the gooey mush of the bone marrow which oddly enough (considering my emotions towards the more unusual animal body parts) I quite enjoy.

Buttered courgette and yellow squash (front) and golden kipfler potato, almond praline, sage and rosemary salt (back)

The generous sides, served on long and thin platters, were perfect foil for my rich beef on one side, and added nourishment on the partridge side. Fresh chunks of steamed zucchini and yellow squash were just lightly buttered while the roasted kipfler potatoes were a revelation, sprinkled with almond praline – a bit like the delightful dichotomy of caramel popcorn or indeed salted caramels.

Sated, or in my case, absolutely stuffed, from the mains, I could barely look at the dessert menu let alone order one, but the enchanting box of petit fours was irresistible.

Petit fours – Marco Polo macaron, raspberry jelly, white chocolate truffle

A treasure box of little sweets is presented on pebbles of coffee – in some cases imparting (unwanted) flavour to the little goodies. Having the jelly first, little did I know that it would be quite the sour, soft jelly with more of a general sweet-sour flavour than raspberries in particular.

The macaron, flavoured with Marco Polo tea, was a little firmer and chewier than I’d expected, but was a delightfully sweet couple of mouthfuls anyway with a rich buttercream filling. The marble-sized white chocolate truffle started to melt in my fingertips as soon as I picked it up, as if the ganache had barely set; the heightened sweetness of white chocolate against bitterness of the cocoa powder and stray piece of crushed coffee bean.

At this point, the restaurant was empty although staff were in no hurry to shoo us out the warm doors. While the service alternated through the night, overall it was excellent and added to the very pleasant experience. We carried our glasses of wine to a couch next to the fire, the dying coals plenty enough to make me blush and thoroughly warm through before braving the outdoors again. It was a feeling, and a night overall, that I could only wish every home felt like.

Chez Pok on Urbanspoon


retrodaze said...

It's a shame that the scallop lasagne wasn't great - as soon as I saw the picture, I thought yum!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

The treasure box of truffles is gorgeous. And the presentation of the patridge-ahem interesting! It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz and the witch under the house! :P

Tina said...

Hi retrodaze - Yep, looked and sounded better than it was... :(

Hi Lorraine - The petit fours were darling and that partridge may have scarred me for a while. lol - Wizard of Oz :D


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