6 Delicious Degustations To Indulge Yourself In
Each with their differing definitions of pleasure.
I’ve sat at some pretty inspiring degustation tables over 20 years working as a food critic and writer.
There was the Michelin-starred restaurant in rural Spain with a maître’d who switched easily between description of complex molecular dishes in four languages at our table alone. The seafood extravaganza in Norway with a confronting crescendo of raw Minke whale. Not to mention the whisky-matched degustation in Edinburgh where we ate… umm… after six courses of whisky, who can recall?
But Margaret River is the only place where my degustation experience has been enjoyed surrounded by stands of mature gums, bookended by a canoe of the river in the morning and a pre-sunset ocean swim in the late afternoon.
A uniqueness of setting that is equal complement for awarded wines poured to match innovative plates.
We’ve got something special, here: a region far from city centres attracting talented chefs bewitched by local produce who want to do it their way. There are no formulas, for these dining experiences. Explore them all. Take them on their own merits. And find in each degustation a differing definition of pleasure.
Miki’s Open Kitchen
Japanese-born, Margaret River-based chef Mikihito “Miki” Nagai isn’t one to follow convention. Take his restaurant, Miki’s Open Kitchen: there are no grand vistas, no gum tree or ocean outlooks. Tucked off the Margaret River main street in a non-descript brick building with blacked-out windows, the restaurant interior is an elegant spacing of tables encircling an open kitchen where the spotlight shines brightly on the ponytailed chef and his innovative approach to Japanese cuisine.
“These dishes won’t be found in Japan,” grins Miki. Instead, Miki works with a technique of shallow copper pots to pull together his signature six-course degustation – Miki’s Complete. Think Abrolhos Island scallops with ume, pork and celeriac, or Albany tempura asparagus with katsuo mayo. For six courses, Miki synthesises the best of the South West’s local produce with Japanese flavours in a way that speaks to his experience of the landscape – all of that Japanese tradition freed from stricture and re-moulded to present a unique taste that breathes new ideas into both culinary cultures. Needless to say, 20 years spent living and working in Margaret River has left Miki with a deep knowledge of wine. This he uses to advantage, collating an interesting array of styles uncommon to the region that work in with his palate. Think Fiano and Vermentino, with an appearance of Chardonnay – because in Margaret River, where would we be without it? A curated sake collection is a thrill for the more traditionally minded. Six courses of Miki’s food matched to six sakes? We’ll drink to that.
When Santiago “Santi” Fernandez took over the head chef position at Voyager Estate in 2017, he hit the ground running. Within a year, Santi had been named 2018 Regional Chef of the Year in the WA Good Food Guide awards, his personal accolade backed by Voyager’s top three placing within the State’s Top 50 Restaurant hit list. The Spanish-born chef is known for his experimental approach to flavour, mixing Spanish tradition with local ingredients stirred in the pot with a large dose of culinary whimsy – the Santi signature. Think a suquet (Catalan stew) made with local marron heads combined with chicken, XO sauce and Geraldton wax – an edible native Australian shrub with a floral citrus profile.
But his real focus is in matching food to wine. The Voyager wines, says Santi, are where his inspiration begins. A seven-course Discovery degustation leads with vintage and varietal, and Santi’s exquisitely nuanced plate follows – dishes that are a majesty of (occasionally) monochromatic colour and palate contrast. To wit, a green gazpacho with acidic counterpoints of kiwi and tomatillo given tonal depth with the opaque density of avocado and yoghurt. A textured dish for a textural Semillon Sauvignon Blanc. Harmonious matches and pretty plates means the seven-course feast is a study in elegant restraint, not gut-busting volume. The perfect lunch, in other words, for the Voyager Estate dining room with its hushed elegance and discreet wait staff. A pre-dessert exploration of the winery’s renowned gardens should also be on the cards for those seeking the full Voyager experience.
Rustico at Hay Shed Hill
Generosity is the byword at Rustico. The winery restaurant of Hay Shed Hill wines, this is a relaxed and generous space categorised by open verandas, expansive green lawn, and convivial approach to eating and drinking that screams long lunches where the adults can focus on the table knowing there is space for the kids to roam. A six-course degustation is a tapas-inspired stroll through Mediterranean culinary territory married by an approach that hallmarks bright, booming flavour – an ideal pairing for the winery’s bright wines.
Chicken liver parfait lifted by the spicy floral of pink peppercorn and sweetly savoury cranberry onion marmalade cuddles up to the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, while fried goats cheese with a strident orange blossom honey has the upfront savoury-sweet character to match the full mouth of a 2017 block 6 Chardonnay. As the courses progress, so does the richness of wine and produce – from Geraldton kingfish, through pork belly and mushrooms with sweet sherry cream, all the way to pan fried gnocchi with truffle and a berried and deeply aromatic 2016 Shiraz. Chase up the kids before seating for a taste of four housemade desserts and the famed Rustico cheeseboard. It’s a fit-to-burst lunch. Your only regret? A failure to extract every last mouthful. Don’t hold back.
Wine is the Vasse Felix story. It is the first winery of the Margaret River region. As Chief Winemaker since 2006, Virginia Willcock is arguably the current first lady. Her ‘Winemaker of the Year’ awards run the gamut from Gourmet Traveller WINE Australian Winemaker of the Year (2012), through to Winemaker of the Year in the 2017 Australian Women in Wine Awards. Needless to say, when it comes to compiling a degustation experience in the Vasse Felix restaurant – a soaring juxtaposition of wood, glass and stone in the vineyard treetops – head chef Brendan Pratt lets the wine lead.
“This place has so much personality,” Brendan says, “and we want to make sure the wine takes center stage in the restaurant.” For a chef enthusiastic to experiment and push his own boundaries, this approach to designing and re-designing his seasonal menus, which evolve as seasonal produce becomes available, is invigorating. And the energy shows on the plate. Think an elegant umami tumble of pork, eel, eggplant and miso designed for quaffing with a Vasse Felix Chardonnay. A delicate curl of kingfish with leek ash and shallot marmalade is a match for a glass of the winery’s Sauvignon Blanc Semillon. The five-course tasting menu is designed to provide a platform for showcasing the region’s leading varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Creating this kind of flavour marriage between plate and glass is a process of trial and error, but one Pratt appears to relish. “We rigorously refine each dish before it gets through to the menu to ensure the match is right,” says Brendan, his enthusiasm an indicator that he embraces the to and fro between kitchen and winery. “The menu has some intrigue. It opens up to have conversation with the waiter and tell the story behind the food and the wine and how we got there.”
It wouldn’t be misplaced to call Aravina one of the showgirls of the Margaret River region when it comes to winery restaurants. Expect a little bit of everything, here – live music on the lawn, big groups spilling out of the wrap around veranda, a sports car gallery and gift shop. The mix is a glitzy one, but then who ever said ‘no’ to a bit of extra sparkle?
Degustation’s at Aravina are an intimate experience. In the private tasting room, cellar door staff lead diners through detailed taste notes, accompanied by a five-course degustation lunch. Prepare for the likes of roasted marron with macadamia, acidic quandong and lemon myrtle with a savoury punch of saltbush paired with a fresh and fruity block 4 Chenin Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc Semillon is only too happy to be taken by the hand and lead toward a smoked tomato oil, creamy stracciatella and heritage tomato salad. “We’re keeping it simple and letting the main ingredients shine,” explains head chef Ben Day, noting the restaurant’s consistent use of native and foraged ingredients. “The direction is simple, fresh and balanced with a focus on healthy, eye pleasing dishes.” The menu crosses from Asia to Europe and back, while the wines echo the list of the region’s classics with a few varietals thrown in for interest: a little Vermentino and Tempranillo present to mix up the well- known Shiraz, Cab Merlot and Chardonnay melody. Tucked up in the Yallingup bush, Aravina is 160 acres of wine and food celebration.
Things sure have got a lot busier in that formerly quiet corner of Yallingup since Wills Domain took out the 2018-2019 WA Good Food Guide Best Restaurant Of The Year. That a winery restaurant could beat Perth city’s big boys at their own game, in its own inimitable style, has been cause for all the right attention. And all of it justified. Eating from Seth James’ kitchen is pure pleasure, as is the setting: a valley view over the green symmetry of endless vines is an intoxicant as powerful as the pleasure on your plate. The degustation here is a planned affair. Book in advance for a private tasting menu that will get you intimate with head chef Seth James’ awarded approach to food and wine that beds personality and unexpected marriages into each plate. Flavours buffet between local produce with native accents and a South East Asian accented palate. The textural sweetness of scallop might be treated to an umami facelift at the hands of kelp and shiitake, while that classic modern Australian marriage of kingfish with dashi and daikon also gets to tango. Ultimately flavours are light, plates are pretty and the wine matching is spot on. Seth knows that the best of food and wine occurs in intimate conversation, not a culinary shouting match. That low harmonious hum that emits from a table when drinking and eating is pure joy is Wills Domain’s soundtrack of success.
Image Credits: Shot by Thom, Elements Margaret River