THE PONY EXPRESS
Victoria Laurie trots off to Perth’s northern suburbs to savour a trendy tapas meal
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.
Communal feast: Shared dishes make the food the main topic of conversation at the tapas-laden tables of the Pony Club