TOP OF THE HILL

Ste­fano Manfredi is reap­ing the ben­e­fits from his new coastal lo­cale, writes Susan Kuro­sawa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

KILL­CARE Bells could be the clos­est ap­prox­i­ma­tion of a Euro­pean coun­try-house ho­tel you could rea­son­ably ex­pect to find in an Aus­tralian coastal set­ting. There are rooms at­tached (in this case, six pas­tel cot­tages) and a wide veranda in the log­gia tra­di­tion. Glasses of the soft­est Mon­tepul­ciano red are be­ing en­cour­ag­ingly clinked, and din­ers are nib­bling sliv­ers of pecorino and gor­gonzola pic­cante. Over­see­ing pro­ceed­ings, in starched chef’s whites and jaunty blue cap, is renowned Syd­ney chef Ste­fano Manfredi, who has trans­planted his mod Ital­ian fare to a bushy clifftop on the NSW cen­tral coast.

Squint and it could be Tus­cany, but things take a turn Down Un­der when Manfredi leads din­ers past flow­er­filled urns and fig and olive trees to his flour­ish­ing herb and veg­etable patch. Here, wire bar­ri­cades keep out the na­tive brush turkeys; cir­cling above is an emer­ald-flecked cloud of screech- ing rain­bow lori­keets. Over the gravel road, through wild aca­cia and heath, walk­ing tracks lead to Putty Beach with its rock­pools, sandy camp­sites and kook­aburra wake-up calls.

The John Singleton-owned Kill­care Bells was for­merly run by hote­liers Ian and Leonie Bell, whose vi­sion was more English es­tate than sea­side villa. The new pro­pri­etor and his man­ager­hosts, Ka­rina and Brian Barry, for­merly at Singleton’s Blue­tongue Brew­ery in the NSW Hunter Val­ley, have soft­ened the over­stuffed decor of the main home­stead with a coastal makeover in sea-and-sand colours. There are pale-striped ban­quettes, pol­ished floors, blue wa­ter glasses and wait staff in long con­ti­nen­tal aprons.

The main room is light and airy, and the cov­ered veranda, al­though more ca­sual, has the same chic feel. There are private din­ing rooms, too, one of which is oc­cu­pied dur­ing our Satur­day din­ner by girls in pet­ti­coats (or per­haps I am too old to ap­pre­ci­ate the finer points of spaghetti-strap frocks).

I like my spag on a plate and we have come to the right place. When Manfredi was in charge of The Restau­rant (later Restau­rant Manfredi) at Ul­timo, I dined there about once a fort­night, usu­ally opt­ing for sub­lime pasta of myr­iad styles from the mag­i­cal pot of his mother, Franca.

The freshly shucked oys­ters are from Shoal­haven ($4 each), and my part­ner and I or­der three apiece while we study the big white menu card. It’s not a vast list­ing and it shouldn’t take long, but the ex­cel­lent oys­ters, served on a bed of scat­tered shells, have been hap­pily de­mol­ished be­fore we can de­cide. I want to or­der ev­ery­thing.

De­lays are caused, too, by our neigh­bours from down the road stop­ping to chat and the ap­pear­ance of a col­league from TheAus­tralian and his part­ner (who would pre­fer Kill­care Bells be kept a neigh­bour­hood se­cret, so I pre­tend my Mole­sk­ine reviewer note­book is for emer­gency shop­ping lists). There is a def­i­nite buzz in the room, and Manfredi clearly is en­joy­ing chat­ting at most of the ta­bles. In the open kitchen, chef Cameron Cans­dell, late of the De Bor­toli win­ery restau­rant in Vic­to­ria’s Yarra Val­ley, can be spied in a glis­ten­ing blur of steam.

My en­tree of zuc­chini flow­ers stuffed with ta­leg­gio and fried in a light bat­ter ($18) is the only dis­ap­point­ment of the night. The serve is too big (not a real com­plaint, I know) and the creamy, yeasty ta­leg­gio cheese is so rich it over­pow­ers the del­i­cacy of the zuc­chini. My part­ner’s pan­fried scal- lops with crushed pota­toes and ca­per and wal­nut salsa ($20) proves to be a dain­tier choice, full of tart flavours and springy tex­ture.

The first risotto I tasted was at The Restau­rant in the 1980s, and it spurred a pas­sion that has led me to at­tempt home-made ver­sions (dodgy suc­cess) and con­duct many restau­rant sur­veys (patchy re­sults). Tonight, there is a cray­fish risotto spe­cial ($45) and it is un­ques­tion­ably sub­lime, the best of any stripe I’ve tasted since, well, Manfredi closed his Ul­timo eatery in the early 1990s.

There are gen­er­ous strips of lo­cal cray­fish from the wa­ters off nearby Wagstaffe Point stirred through the per­fectly cooked ar­bo­rio rice with su­per-fine rib­bons of zuc­chini.

My part­ner’s roast suck­ling lamb with salsa drag­on­cello and roast pota­toes ($39) is an equal suc­cess. The Flin­ders Is­land lamb is cooked to medium-rare per­fec­tion; the bread­based salsa drag­on­cello is a Manfredi spe­cialty, fra­grant with tar­ragon leaves torn from the stem, am­ple gar­lic and sloshes of red wine vine­gar.

A leaf salad ($9) on the side is a good sauce-mop­per, and many of the crisp in­gre­di­ents, as we dis­cover on an im­promptu tour of Manfredi’s turkeyfree gar­den, have been gath­ered mere me­tres from the veranda.

For the dolci course (the menu comes with a firm Ital­ian touch, from primi to for­maggi ), my meringue served with jas­mine-poached apri­cots and pas­sion­fruit ($14.50) is a de­li­cious take on a pavlova, hold the cream peaks and ki­wifruit.

Him­self’s but­ter­milk pan­na­cotta with mango cheeks and prosecco jelly ($14.50) is la dol­cevita writ sweet and large, en­livened with the dry, lemony fizz of a good prosecco.

The Bells Kill­care house red, avail­able by the glass, is a 2006 Umani Ronchi Mon­tepul­ciano d’Abruzzo ($8), which is satin-smooth and seems the per­fect drop for din­ner at our lo­cal os­te­ria within cooee of the surf. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for. Kill­care Bells 107 The Scenic Rd, Kill­care Heights, NSW. (02) 4360 2411; www.kill­care­bells.com.au. Open: Din­ner seven days from 6.30pm; lunch on Fri­days and at week­ends. Cost: About $165 for two, with three cour­ses and glasses of house wine. Drink: Well-bal­anced wine list (lim­ited se­lec­tion by the glass); ex­cel­lent gin and ton­ics ($8). Rea­son to re­turn: Jazz and cro­quet lunches on the first Sun­day of ev­ery month. Also to stay in one of the pretty cot­tages.

Check­list

Beachy keen: The restau­rant at Kill­care Bells is invit­ing with its sea-and-sand colour scheme

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