THE PONY EX­PRESS

Vic­to­ria Lau­rie trots off to Perth’s north­ern sub­urbs to savour a trendy tapas meal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

THERE are as­pects of life that are mys­ti­fy­ing, such as how restau­rant names are cho­sen. Perth has its share of horsy-sound­ing places to eat: El Ca­ballo, Horse­feath­ers, the Loose Box and now the Pony Club, in Mount Law­ley, a few kilo­me­tres north of the cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict.

There was pre­sum­ably a horse or two in the pad­dock when the Loose Box, West­ern Aus­tralia’s award-win­ning French restau­rant, opened in a run-down stone cot­tage in Perth’s hills. But when four of us stand on Beau­fort Street out­side the Pony Club, its pranc­ing pink horse logo all lit up, we’re stumped as to what the equine con­nec­tion may be with this ul­tra-trendy dis­trict.

The an­swer is there isn’t one: it’s just a hip name to at­tract the in-crowd. Pre­sum­ably the same clien­tele fre­quents the fash­ion and dog ac­ces­sory shop across the road, and the tan­ning and Brazil­ian wax­ing stu­dio next door. Art-house films are shown at the nearby 1920s-style As­tor theatre and, down the hill, the Beau­fort Street Mer­chant is a stylish gro­cery and liquor store for in­ner-city food­ies.

Step inside the Pony Club and it’s not im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous why de­scrip­tions in the me­dia such as ‘‘ eques­trian glam­our’’ and ‘‘ up-mar­ket tapas bar’’ would fit. It looks nei­ther Span­ish nor eques­trian. It’s self-con­sciously groovy, with clus­ters of black and white chan­de­liers, pin­striped wall­pa­per in candy hues and white, ex­tremely com­fort­able, moulded plas­tic and metal chairs. There’s even a touch of Sloane Ranger in the back bar, with its Ch­ester­field lounges and a large mu­ral of graz­ing horses.

All signs of the last food fad have been erased: un­til last Oc­to­ber, the Pony Club was In­fu­sion Noo­dle Bar.

Our waiter an­nounces they are short­staffed tonight (a Thurs­day) and asks why don’t we leave the or­der­ing to her. It’s the kind of approach nor­mally guar­an­teed to ir­ri­tate any se­ri­ous diner, but she has an air of con­fi­dence that seems to match the decor, and we ac­qui­esce. And when the menus ar­rive, her help is wel­come.

They are writ­ten in small, hard-to-read type and the food is di­vided into only two cat­e­gories: Share and Dessert. With nearly 30 dishes listed un­der Share, it’s dif­fi­cult to know where to start or how much to or­der.

Our waiter sug­gests a se­lec­tion that ac­com­mo­dates the two veg­e­tar­i­ans among us and promptly whisks away our menus. With just enough time for us to or­der a bot­tle of Fran­k­land River Shi­raz ($38) from the very good wine list, big white plates start ar­riv­ing and the com­mu­nal graz­ing be­gins.

This is Span­ish tapas-style eat­ing, but the menu bor­rows from ev­ery­where. We dip our fin­gers into a de­li­cious bowl of tiny olives to start and slices of grilled haloumi ($10.50) fol­low, salty and seared to per­fec- tion. This first dish meets with the ap­proval of our veg­e­tar­i­ans, who love the spici­ness of the harissa against the bland haloumi.

In quick suc­ces­sion, plates ar­rive and are promptly cleared. A plate of creamy balls turns out to be truf­fled honey Per­sian feta cros­tini with wal­nuts and torn basil ($11.20). Tuna slices seared and rolled in fen­nel and su­mac with ca­per­ber­ries ($17.50) are pounced on, and Fish Boy, my din­ing part­ner, ap­pre­ci­ates their sea-salt tang.

My favourite dish is an aubergine tim­bale with as­para­gus and ar­ti­choke parme­san cream ($12.50), a pre­ten­tious-sound­ing cre­ation that turns out to be won­der­fully sub­tle in flavour, mak­ing the most of the del­i­cately flavoured in­gre­di­ents.

Slices of snap­per cooked with the North African spice-blend cher­moula, with pre­served lemon po­lenta and red pep­per essence ($32.90), are firm and moist. And Fish Boy breaks his habit of a life­time and takes a sec­ond help­ing of the roast lamb rump on a bed of orange lentils, which are de­li­ciously nutty and firm. This dish comes with juicy beet­root cubes and aioli ($28.90).

Around us, oth­ers are im­mersed in lively con­ver­sa­tion about the food, just as we are. This is the great plea­sure of shared food: dis­cussing the dishes and com­par­ing tastes.

We agree chef Levi Moses has ex­celled with his dish of gor­gonzola and wal­nut­stuffed dates wrapped in pa­per-fine pro­sciutto ($14.80). But, de­li­cious morsels though they are, they are clearly cal­cu­lated to im­press. The sim­pler ones are just as sat­is­fy­ing: house-cured ju­niper salmon with pink grape­fruit and saf­fron dress­ing ($14.50) and crispy king prawns in a Pernod dress­ing ($16.20). Then, sud­denly, af­ter plate eight or nine, the dan­ger of graz­ing hits home. On re­triev­ing the menu and peer­ing again at the small print, we re­alise that, half­way down, dishes jump from be­tween $10 and $15 each to nearly $30. And if, like us, you’ve or­dered the seared scal­lops with chorizo ($17.90), then asked for two more scal­lops (for the non-meat eaters), you’re in­ex­pli­ca­bly charged an­other $11.80.

The motto is grazer, beware. It is also pos­si­ble to or­der from the fixed-price ban­quet menu (for ta­bles of four or more), which of­fers a se­ries of dishes for a set $50 or $60 a head. Nev­er­the­less, with drinks added, it’s still easy to chalk up $80 a head.

Our waiter keeps wine and wa­ter flow­ing, and is gen­er­ally at­ten­tive. We have heard that week­end cus­tomers can of­ten find them­selves ma­rooned at the bar, menu in hand and no ta­ble ser­vice in sight. Week­days are prob­a­bly a bet­ter choice all round: park­ing is eas­ier in busy Beau­fort Street and the piped mu­sic, al­though too loud, isn’t ex­ac­er­bated by the hub­bub of a bois­ter­ous end-of-week crowd.

We fin­ish with fresh chur­ros dipped in choco­late ganache ($10.50) and share a mouth­ful each of white choco­late and car­damom baked cus­tard with bit­ter choco­late mousse ($13.50).

We have en­joyed it all. How­ever, one sus­pects that when they ring the changes in hot food fash­ion items and in­te­rior decor, the Pony Club will obe­di­ently trot along in the di­rec­tion of the next trend. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.

Pic­ture: Colin Murty

Com­mu­nal feast: Shared dishes make the food the main topic of con­ver­sa­tion at the tapas-laden ta­bles of the Pony Club

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