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.

Mikis Kitchen

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 seven-course degustation – Miki’s Complete. Think Abrolhos Island scallops with ume, pork and celeriac, or Albany tempura asparagus with katsuo mayo. For seven 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. Seven courses of Miki’s food matched to seven sakes? We’ll drink to that.

Voyager Estate

Voyager Estate

The unrelenting focus in perfectly matching the Voyager wines and food is a significant piece of the exquisite dining puzzle at Voyager Estate. Engaging estate Sommelier Claire Tonon was recently awarded 2021 Regional Sommelier of the Year by the WA Good Food Guide, and her expertise shines through in the carefully crafted degustation menu created each new season alongside Acting Head Chef Ray Van Puymbroeck.

A seven-course Discovery degustation leads with vintage and varietal, and an exquisitely nuanced plate follows – dishes that are a majesty of (occasionally) monochromatic colour and palate contrast. The current Soli iteration (latin for ‘soil’), features line-caught fish, sourced from Busselton, lightly salted and gently poached or steamed. Locally sourced mussels are cooked with peppercorn and kaffir lime, and then smoked. This pristine coastal produce is served alongside a chicken and lime sauce, scallop silk and a Chardonnay yuzu gel, and finished with an array of coastal plants, including pickled Karkalla from the Voyager Garden.

The magnificent dish is paired with their organic single-vineyard Chardonnay, which displays delicate floral and flinty notes alongside intense citrus. The chicken and lime sauce is deliciously umami and the line-caught fish and mussels, with their mineral notes and varying amounts of sweetness, serve to highlight the more structured side of the Chardonnay. The smoked mussel also brings through some of the wine’s lovely oak character.

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 five-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.

Duck liver parfait lifted by pickled walnut, grilled ciabatta and orange cuddles up to the 2021 Vermentino, while Abrolhos Island scallop with cauliflower, pernod bisque and tobiko has the upfront savoury-sweet character to match the full mouth of a 2021 Block 6 Chardonnay. As the courses progress, so does the richness of wine and produce – from Western Rock lobster, through pork belly, and mushrooms with sweet sherry custard.

Chase up the kids before seating for a taste of 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.

2022 Vasse Felix Degustation Menu Plate

Vasse Felix

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. After recently taking out the number one spot in the 2021 WA Good Food Guide Awards it’s clear that they have mastered a winning formula, and this is an experience not to be missed.

“This place has so much personality,” Brendan says, “and we want to make sure the wine takes centre 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.”

Aravina Restaurant

Aravina Estate

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. Cellar door staff lead diners through detailed taste notes, accompanied by a two or three course degustation lunch. Prepare for the likes of seared Shark Bay scallops, roast chicken sauce, celeriac, charred brassicas and finger lime paired with a fresh and fruity block 4 Chenin Blanc. Their Reserve Chardonnay is only too happy to be taken by the hand and lead toward line caught fish, mussel butter sauce, charred rapini, ice plant and bottarga. 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.

Note: The restaurant is closed for renovations over winter 2022 but will be re-opening late-spring. In the meantime the venue is still open 7 days a week with an extended menu from their Riviera Bar. 

Wills Domain

Wills Domain

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 the Wills Domain 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 the restaurants’ 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. Wills Domain 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, and is their soundtrack of success.

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