A TAS­MAN CATCH

Matthew Denholm en­joys an is­land taste of the south­ern seas

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

SEAFOOD doesn’t come any fresher than this. Or­der oys­ters at the Mus­sel Boys, in Taranna on the Tas­man Penin­sula, south­east of Ho­bart, and a staff mem­ber pops down to the wa­ters of Nor­folk Bay a few me­tres be­low to prise them from their beds.

It’s a prac­tice that ex­em­pli­fies the approach of chef Eloise Baker, who fo­cuses on a fresh and lo­cal phi­los­o­phy.

To fully ap­pre­ci­ate Baker’s ded­i­ca­tion to this foodie mantra, my fel­low es­capee, Jen, and I set aside the best part of an af­ter­noon, find a ta­ble in the sun with a view of the tran­quil bay and or­der the Seven Nat­u­ral Won­ders of the Tas­man Penin­sula ($74 a per­son). We are all set to spend the next cou­ple of hours ‘‘ laz­ing and graz­ing’’, as Baker puts it, on the best pro­duce this in­trigu­ing and dra­mat­i­cally beau­ti­ful cor­ner of the world has to of­fer.

The first of our seven in­dul­gences is those neigh­bour­hood oys­ters. I’m not gen­er­ally a fan of con­fus­ing the fresh taste of raw oys­ters with any­thing other than a drop of lemon, so I cast a scep­ti­cal eye over the three of­fer­ings: with tomato, Tabasco and vodka; smoked salmon and creme fraiche; and salt and Szech­wan pep­per.

To my sur­prise, all three are su­perb. The salt and Szech­wan, which has per­haps the strong­est of the flavours, is the big­gest reve­la­tion. Some­how Baker has man­aged to coat an oys­ter in an ex­plo­sive dust of spices and still per­suade the jewel inside to re­tain its flavour. I toy with the idea of or­der­ing a half dozen more right away. How­ever, sobered by an­other glance at the six ‘‘ nat­u­ral won­ders’’ to come, I stay on the course Baker has set for us.

By now I would nor­mally have told you about the wine we’d cho­sen. Only we haven’t been able to se­cure it. Our first choice is un­avail­able and, rather than hang around and chat about other suit­able op­tions, the wait­ress has aban­doned us and re­turns only when our oys­ters are ready. For­tu­nately, this proves to be the only lapse in ser­vice this af­ter­noon.

Some­how we re­cover from the ob­scen­ity of eat­ing our oys­ters with­out the ex­cel­lent Yax­ley Es­tate Pinot Gris ($34) that even­tu­ally ar­rives. The vine­yard is in Cop­ping, a short drive north up the Arthur High­way, al­low­ing us to re­main in theme with this sam­pling of penin­sula won­ders.

The next of th­ese ar­rives promptly: mus­sels with as­para­gus sauteed in brown but­ter, and sage and pump­kin ravi­oli topped with aged parme­san.

The ravi­oli is a lit­tle stodgy and not ex­actly bulging with pump­kin. How­ever, the mus­sels and their sauce more than com­pen­sate. I marvel that but­ter and sage alone can pro­duce such sen­sa­tional flavour.

Two cour­ses un­der our belts and five to go: it’s time to rest the taste­buds and savour our sur­round­ings. Au­tumn sun­shine, weak but still warm­ing, streams through the large win­dows of­fer­ing pleas­ant views. The bay is like so many in this neck of the woods, sim­ply stun­ning, with wooded hills gen­tly slop­ing to the shore. There’s less to write home about in the plain, tim­bered restau­rant in­te­rior, apart from the pho­to­graphs of Tas­ma­nian beauty spots that adorn the walls. This is not a de­signer diner, but then Jen and I are not here for the decor.

We are here, how­ever, for the grilled Pi­rates Bay oc­to­pus with spinach and fetta pie and lemon aioli. The oc­to­pus is a lit­tle chewy but, once again, Baker’s re­mark­able flavours are im­pos­si­ble to fault, as is the per­fectly cooked pas­try ac­com­pa­ni­ment.

The com­bi­na­tion of seafood and crust con­tin­ues with the next course: salmon, baked in pas­try with smoked oys­ter pate on lemon-roasted sweet potato and cit­rus but­ter. I had har­boured fears it would be a lit­tle rich, but this proves un­founded. Ev­ery­thing is per­fect, the bal­ance of flavours, the crisp pas­try and the salmon, which is cooked just right.

It is about this point I feel the need to ad­just my belt buckle. Not that I’m wa­ver­ing: there is much yet to come that prom­ises to be too good to back out. Like any marathon, the se­cret is in prop­erly pac­ing one­self. An­other rest, as the Yax­ley Es­tate cleanses our palates and aids di­ges­tion. Our wait­ress also help­fully li­aises with Baker, al­low­ing us to time our cour­ses.

We’ve reached course five and I’m at belt notch two as the menu leaves the ocean and makes for the farm gate, start­ing with Ran­noch Farm quail, blue cheese, wal­nut and ap­ple salad and red wine vi­nai­grette.

I must ad­mit to avoid­ing quail usu­ally, on the sim­ple logic a bird that small can’t pos­si­bly stack up against its larger cousins in the eat­ing stakes. While th­ese quails are plump, it is once again the com­bi­na­tion of flavours and tex­tures that wins out. By now I’m a Baker fan, re­gard­less of what the fi­nal two cour­ses have to of­fer. This course is yet an­other well con­ceived and bril­liantly ex­e­cuted use of lo­cal pro­duce.

The depth and intelligence of the menu is as­tound­ing, not only be­cause of the restau­rant’s dis­tance from the reg­u­lar turnover of a city clien­tele, but be­cause of Baker’s youth. She was 26 when she es­tab­lished the Mus­sel Boys, three years ago.

My faith is re­in­forced in course six: veni­son from Doo Town (yes, there is such a place) with a roast beet­root, roast gar­lic and goats cheese tart and a pinot noir na­tive pep­per syrup.

If I had come here just to tackle this last dish it would have been worth the drive from Ho­bart. The meat is ten­der and the com­bi­na­tions in­spired.

I can barely move but I’m happy. So happy I can han­dle the bad news: the promised seven won­ders have be­come six. Baker is un­able to pro­vide a thor­oughly lo­cal dessert (due to the ex­hausted sup­ply of rasp­ber­ries, I later dis­cover).

I’m not sure I could eat a sev­enth won­der, wher­ever it hails from. But the marathon must be com­pleted, hav­ing come this far, and we agree to depart from the tast­ing list and top off our af­ter­noon of in­dul­gence with a se­lec­tion from the main menu. I opt for the bitey Pyen­gana aged ched­dar, from Tas­ma­nia’s north­east, with quince paste, pear and crack­ers. Jen’s more ex­pan­sive con­sti­tu­tion al­lows her to man­age a choco­late and chilli tart with vanilla ice cream and choco­late cream sauce. It is just the right com­bi­na­tion of chilli zing and choles­terol com­fort, she tells me.

At the Mus­sel Boys, won­ders never cease. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.

Check­list

The Mus­sel Boys 5927 Arthur High­way, Taranna, Tas­man Penin­sula, Tas­ma­nia; (03) 6250 3088. Open: In win­ter, Wed­nes­day, from 5pm; Thurs­day-Sun­day, lunch from noon and din­ner from 5pm. Cost: Three-course lunch for two with wine, about $115-$145; slightly more for din­ner. Rea­son to re­turn: To in­dulge again in the Seven Nat­u­ral Won­ders of the Tas­man Penin­sula (if you’re com­ing for din­ner, this tast­ing menu must be or­dered be­fore 8pm), and for chef Eloise Baker’s bril­liantly con­ceived and well-ex­e­cuted com­bi­na­tions of flavours, achieved with the fresh­est lo­cal in­gre­di­ents.

Pic­tures: Manabu Kondo

In her do­main: The Mus­sel Boys chef Eloise Baker, main pic­ture; mus­sels, in the pan and on the plate, left

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