Thursday, April 15, 2010

Vines, Wines and Automobiles

Over the weekend we were lucky enough to be invited by Pooley Wines just outside of Richmond and their Tasmanian distributor Domaine Wine Shippers to go out and see their set-up and do a couple of vertical tastings.

It was quite an early start (by hospitality standards) after a late-finishing dinner party, when we met the bus down in Salamanca Place and got chatting to the others who would be joining us. There were about 20 other restaurant owners, managers and chefs from lots of other restaurants in town.

A bit of background on Pooley, they are a very small family-run company that is broken into three parts:
They have a vast shed in Cambridge where they offer help to other small vineyards from the Coal Valley; store, bottle and label wines for those producers who cannot afford the outlay for the bottling and labelling infrastructure; and store wine in stable conditions for those who would otherwise be holding wine in their farm sheds. This was our first stop and where we met Matthew Pooley (the third generation Pooley to work the vineyard) who gave us a tour of their operation and how it all works, They had the labeling machine working and wine from floor to ceiling at all stages of production from fermentation to labelled and packed bottles.

The second part of the business is a bit more conventional. They grow grapes and make wine. They have a two sites, the largest is past Campania and was all under nets with Riesling and Pinot Noir still on the vines, a testament to the long and warm summer we have just had. Matthew, who runs the vineyards, is firmly rooted in the science of growing good grapes. He ran us through the ins-and-outs of the site and the coming 2010 vintage without bamboozeling us with scientific jargon. It remains very hands on as Pooley only produces about 1500 cases of wine each vintage.

It was then time to see the third part of Pooley, the cellar door located behind the grand sandstone house. We hopped off the bus and were ushered into the old hay shed on the homestead past an original model Volkswagen Beetle and an early 1950s Porsche. The shed with its bowing floorboards, whitewashed sandstone walls and friendly vineyard dog was going to be the impossibly-pretty setting for our vertical tasting and lunch.

The view from where we sat in the barn

We were introduced to John Pooley and sat at our own little tasting station where a Pooley Riesling from each vintage going back to 1999 was poured and we set about tasting them and taking notes. The wines were superb and a very interesting comparison. Colour ranged from a deep golden straw colour in the 1999 to almost clear in the 2009.

Riesling (oldest to the left)

Chef and Richmond local Anton Kunz was tucked away in one corner of the barn with a giant paella pan over a big gas burner busily stirring away at a risotto for our lunch - it smelled great but did make it a bit difficult to focus on the wine. We discussed the Rieslings among the whole group before we moved on to Pinot Noir.

Chef Kunz with his massive pan

The Pinot was poured in a similar fashion to the Riesling but this time we started with a 1998. The oldest two wines were still under the original Pooley label designed by the most senior and original Pooley wine maker. It is a bit dated by todays standards with its pink and ornate family crest, but it did suit the museum-feel of the wines. The first to show was almost the colour of tea but showed no negative effects of the 12 years since it was plucked form its vine. We noted and talked about the wines before lunch was served. The food changed the palate of all the wines so it was interesting to have another look back through them with this in mind.

As a little surprise John brought out a red sparkling Pinot Noir, Not many of the group had tasted a sparkling Pinot before and it really divided the room into those who liked it and those who didn't (as sparkling red tends to do).


The original Pooley label

Sadly that was the end of the wine but we sat and chatted over a cheese plate and had another good look at the cars before it was back to the bus and return to Hobart. It was a real treat to see the older wines that you simply cannot buy anymore and, particularly, the older Tasmanian Rieslings. Thanks to DWS and the Pooley family for their hospitality.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Vicrorian Adventure part three

Early start number three saw us waking up to pack up our things. We had to vacate the spare room because more friends were coming to Melbourne from London and were going to be jetlagged. 
We made for the city on the train with the intention of doing a little bit of shopping, and to see a few sites for the English addition to our party. We also intended to go to the original Movida for lunch, however when we arrived we were dismayed to find that it was closed for renovations! “Plan B” we thought would be to head to Chinatown and check out the hatted Hu Tong Dumpling Bar in Market Lane opposite The Flower Drum. Hatted dumplings we had to see!

Walking in we were greeted by a man with a large walkie-talkie who asked us to wait for a table, (there were 7 of us) the message came through the walkie and we were permitted upstairs to a large round table with a lazy susan in the centre. 

The kitchen window
Walking through the restaurant you get a great view into the kitchen through a big window onto the dumpling station where they are all rolled and filled to order. Four chefs were working very hard due to the full dining room. We looked through the menu and Elysia took charge ordering a bunch of stuff for us all to share. We ordered six Tsingtao beers that were promptly brought to the table still in the six-pack holder - this was left nearby on the waiters’ station and later used to clear the bottles.
Xiao Long Bao! We had 5 of these baskets...

Food started to arrive as it was ready, and soon we had, xiao long, pork, prawn and vegetable dumplings, red pork, steamed bok choy, crispy whitebait, chicken and sweet corn soup and spring rolls spinning around in the centre of the table! Everything was excellent, however we do have to add that the xiao long bao at humble little Written On Tea in Sandy Bay are even better. 
Vegetable dumplings in spinach skins

Pork with buk choi

More xiao long

Prawn dumplings in chilli

White bait with onions

Spring rolls with red sauce

Prawns in bean curd skin

Chicken and sweet corn soup

Far-too-much-food-for-everyone-later we staggered out and walked back through Chinatown to Koko Black in Royal Arcade for some chocolates!
The fabulous Koko Black. You aren't allowed to take pictures in side, but it is one of the most magical places in Melbourne.

We were staying at another friend’s house for the evening and went via the supermarket to pick up ingredients to cook dinner to say thanks for the bed. We decided to do a cauliflower soup with Parmesan croutons, roast chicken and a Streets Vinetta. There was a Parmesan company giving out samples at Flinders Street Station so we had to incorporate that somehow! Everything turned out pretty well; we ate so much chicken and crispy potatoes we didn’t even get to the ice cream. There were a couple of quick games of darts before an early night before a 5:30 start to catch a plane back home and straight in to work.
It was a great trip, although we can no longer look the credit card in the eye, and we can highly recommend any of the places we visited, however our favourites were Port Phillip Estate for food and the wonderful Campaspe House in Woodend for accommodation, particularly in winter! 

Big thanks to the Piccalilly crew for being so relyable and letting us have the Saturday night off. Thanks to Morgan and Rachel, Chris and Andrea, Leigh and Angela, for the good times and accomodation. And Chris and Julie for feeding the starter while we were away and the constant updates reassuring Iain that the place hadn't burnt down.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Victorian Adventure part two

Day two began early with breakfast by the pool. Full continental buffet with great red wine-poached pears and hand-made muesli with macadamia nuts and various other things and a huge cooked breakfast to set us up for the day. 
Poached pear and muesli

We had a less-rushed look around the hotel with its billiard room, sitting room with various animals’ heads around the walls and brooding dark timber on every surface. We checked out after having a chat to the wonderful Guest Service Advisor ( and hit the road in the direction of Melbourne. 

Kitchen garden

The entrance at Campaspe House

One of the drive ways

The GPS predictably broke down again and got us lost before we dropped off the car and were picked up by our Melbourne-dwelling, formerly Tasmanian friends Chris and Andrea, with whom we were staying. We loaded the bags and broken GPS into their car and made a bee-line straight to the Mornington Peninsula and the highly recommended Port Phillip Estate where our good friend Rob works in the kitchen now run by former Meadowbank Estate head chef Simon West. When we finally got off the freeway and onto the Peninsula we couldn’t help but notice several hand-painted signs offering fresh figs for sale somewhere further down the road. They turned out to be massive, ripe and sweet and only $10 a kilo!
Figs in the car

Initial impressions of the $20 million building at Port Phillip Estate are that it is very unwelcoming. It has the impression of an abattoir, with its stark rammed-earth walls and bare car park. This is, however, where the similarity to a slaughterhouse ends. As you approach the heavy looking, recovered-timber doors with their vast brass knobs, the door silently swings open towards you revealing a view of Port Philip Bay beyond vineyards that will stop you in your tracks and an interior that would make Bill Gates jealous. 

The slaughterhouse exterior of Port Philip Estate
We were a little bit early so turned towards the long, backlit tasting bar to have a look at the house wines. A couple of good pinots were over-shadowed by a superb Barberra from the vines on the estate.
Tasting the rine

They knew in the restaurant that we were coming so we were led to a table in the window and presented with menus. Before even opening the menus we had ordered one of everything to share between the four of us. Chef West’s menu is the same concept as it was at Meadowbank, small plates, with the recommendation that you try more than one (a lot like Piccalilly in fact). The kitchen sent us out a little amuse bouche of Moulting Bay oysters from Tasmania with pickled cucumber sorbet, abalone and sweet corn soup and a blue swimmer crab croquette. All great! The first round of dishes arrived, Simon’s very famous fish carparccio, this time with snapper. This dish was our favourite at Meadowbank, fresh cold fish crispy capers, fennel and radish. Grilled tuna with grapes and pine nuts, crispy battered zucchini flowers with nuts and herbs. Crayfish with brioche and cucumber and an impossibly pretty vegetable salad.

Beyond the vines on a clear day you can see Bass Strait (or so they say)

Inside the dining room

Amuse bouche


Tuna with grapes


Crispy zucchini flowers

Very beautiful salad

Next round: Roasted rabbit wrapped in bacon with a very sweet carrot puree, standout venison with sauté mushrooms and silky cheesy polenta, rare veal with a very good celery remoulade and lacy crouton (this is where the camera battery ran out, meaning the remainder of the trip had to be photographed on the trusty iPhone) duck breast with apple and lettuce salad.

Rabbit with carrots

Venison with polenta

Very rare veal

Yummy duck

We also enjoyed the green beans with hazelnuts and potato gratin as side dishes. On the way out, Simon took us through his kitchen, it was wonderful. They have a cool-room half the size of Piccalilly’s whole kitchen! 

Port Phillip Estate has not been open very long, only a matter of months, and the quality of the food is a real testament to Simon West. Everything was perfect, local ingredients treated with care and skill. Everything was presented, executed and delivered in an artful way and served by enthusiastic and personable waiters. The service here was the best we had in Victoria on this trip.
We made our way out of the restaurant, through the giant doors and 300 metres down the road to the Darling Park cellar door, a favourite from last time we were on the Peninsula - great wines and a must-see for any travellers. Sparkling pinot, reserve chardonnay and cane-cut pinot gris are the standouts.
A stand-out day so far with a world-class lunch and some great wines, but it wasn’t over yet! 
The much blogged, written, talked, and even shouted about Cutler & Co was booked for dinner and the time was drawing ever closer after a three month wait since making the booking.
We returned to Chris and Andreas’ house and relaxed for a hour or so before getting suited and dressed and headed out to Brunswick Street for a pre-dinner drink before walking the short distance to Gertrude Street and the stunningly fitted-out Cutler & Co. We were seated in the bar, offered a drink and given a chance to admire the dining room while we waited for our other dining companions. Superlatives fall short, however. Every detail has been considered, funky lights, distressed walls, a floor to ceiling glass-fronted cellar room, textured glass, interesting things hanging on the walls and effortless automatic glass doors into the kitchen and bathrooms. The glass into the kitchen providing a tantalizing glimpse of lots of chefs getting on with a busy service.
Chef and owner Andrew McConnell’s wife Pascal Gomes-McNabb, is a decorated architect and designer and has worked on all of the couple’s restaurant ventures to date. 

Cutler interior

We were seated and presented with menus and a wine list the size of a funky coffee table book. The seven of us decided to go with the $130 degustation menu and ordered a few bottles of wine. We were joined by Courtney (who used to be our assistant restaurant manager), her partner and Tom who recently left our kitchen team to work at Maze under the Gordon Ramsay banner so we set about catching up on what they had been up to in Melbourne since leaving Piccalilly.
Amuse bouches arrived in several parts. Wagyu beef bresola that we were instructed to wrap around a twig of anchovy pastry. Biting into the pastry we discovered that a thread of onion had been baked into the centre of it. Pearl white octopus tentacle with a slice of nearly crispy chorizo sausage. Oysters, shucked to order with lemon and, finally, to round out the first course, what looked like a white prawn cracker but turned out to be a Parmesan cracker. All great, all unexpected and all presented with flair.

Wagyu bresola

Octopus and chorizo

Oysters and permesan crackers

Next, cured kingfish with compressed and slightly pickled cucumber and horseradish snow. The fish was cured to perfection still soft but not glassy. Cucumber and horseradish added a little something to cut the richness of the raw fish. Again, presentation was superb, a matte black slightly curved plate made the whiteness of the ingredients really jump out.
A terrible photo, but this is the kingfish

Pressed quail terrine had been cut into a perfect centimetre thick rectangle and had been topped with a pretty salad of delicate leaves, fennel and radish. It was served with a cylinder of brique pastry filled with a silken foie gras mousse. We are suckers for liver in general, but the decadence of quail and foie gras was a real winner.

Pressed quail terrine with foie gras cigar. The line across the plate was a white sultana puree
Next up was Iain’s favourite. Guess what? Heirloom tomatoes simply cut and plated with fromage blanc, a little smoked eggplant and zucchini petals. Simple, beautiful and tasty.

Western Australian marron with persilane, jamon and celery came out next. Succulent marron paired with the succulent and slightly salty Persilain was a nice synergy. The jamon melted in the mouth. There were some tiny filaments of the skin of red capsicums that had been dehydrated until nearly crispy and then added to the dish - they looked great but added little to the flavour of the marron.
Marron with persilane 

The final savoury dish was a lesson in simplicity and richness. Slow-roasted rib of wagyu beef alongside a pale and silky parsley root puree and XO spring onions. The beef itself was so moist and tender it did not require a sauce, the rich and subtle puree was cut by the salty spring onions that sported just the right amount of chilli. The three perfect elements.
Melting wagyu

Sweet dishes were also a sight to behold. First was figs, both fresh and compressed with coconut cream, crystal clear and slightly purple lavender jelly, olive tuilles and sheep’s milk yoghurt. Sheep’s milk is a rare treat as most of it goes towards cheese long before chefs ever get a look at it. The olive added a saltiness that worked so well with the yoghurt and figs.
Figs with coconut cream

Lastly the very famous violet ice cream with chocolate ganache and sour cherry. We had heard a lot about this dish, its slightly reminiscent of Peter Gilmore’s famous raspberry dessert. Stunning would be the only word to describe it. Subtle, balanced and floral were the flavours. Clove meringue, freeze-dried raspberries, maltodextrin, and a microwave sponge that was lighter than light rounded out the dish and the meal. Every bit of hype surrounding this signature is well deserved.

Standout dish, violet ice cream

Service was slightly stand-offish but very efficient, we highly recommend getting your name onto the bottom of Cutler & Co’s three-month waiting list and getting in there before McConnell and Gomes-McNabb get itchy feet and move to another location as they have made such a habit of over the last 10 years.

We walked out past the uber-funky flashing neon light that alternates between Cutler, &, Co and headed for the city for a nightcap at the Gin Palace and were home by 1:00am.

Part Three tomorrow...