Judith Elen discovers a gourmet table amid the treetops of the Gold Coast hinterland
DAPPLED light and greenery embrace us as we arrive at Songbirds in the Forest, the award-winning restaurant at Songbirds Rainforest Retreat on Queensland’s Tamborine Mountain, about 40 minutes inland from the Gold Coast.
I’ve driven up the mountain with my friend T. K., who’s stationed at Main Beach, for a leisurely Sunday lunch. We park and ascend an angled walkway amid stark landscaping, which gives a sense of ceremony to our arrival even before the bungalow-style building comes into view.
Welcomed in a small reception area, we’re led into a wide veranda-room, roofed but open to the surrounding vegetation and full of filtered light. The kitchen, on the inner side, is sheltered from the dining area but open on one end so diners can gaze in as they walk through to an inner courtyard.
The retreat has six villas among the trees on the hillside behind, while the fluid spaces of the restaurant in the main bungalow appear to merge with the forest. Our table edges the greenery. A cushioned banquette, square with the veranda’s edge, faces back into the room; wanting to keep my eye on things, I choose this seat. T. K. takes the chair looking out, ready to report on brush turkey sightings, of which there are several. Birds swoop and call among the branches, just out of reach, and we are all anticipation.
Our waiter arrives with the menus and, soon after, a couple of slices of bread with a dipping dish of oil, dukkah and (weirdly) a dollop of stiff herbedpotato mash.
T. K. orders tempura soft-shell crab with an organic vegetable and Vietnamese mint rice paper roll and green chilli dip ($24). The menu, while liberally laced with meat dishes (from wagyu to kangaroo), has a profoundly healthy base in vegetables and herbs. For my entree I choose Three Tastes of the Sea: a ceviche of scallops in bloodorange oil, tempura Kangaroo Island crayfish with wasabi aioli and Thai sashimi of hiramasa kingfish ($25).
We order a bottle of San Pellegrino water ($9) and glasses of wine (Cloudy Bay Chardonnay and organic Astrolabe Awatere Sauvignon Blanc, both from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, $16 and $11). We are in leisurely mood, but about 40 minutes pass before our first courses appear.
T. K., perhaps peeved by the wait, is dissatisfied with hers: she finds the crab uninspiring and offers me a taste of the Vietnamese roll, which we both find heavy rather than crisply fresh. My seafood trio, however, is beautiful: fresh, meaty morsels lined up on a rectangular plate, the pale ceviche on a half scallop shell, the tempura floatingly light and with just the right hint of richness from the wasabi aioli, and four neatly overlapping slices of kingfish with a sliver of lime and a little mound of pink Himalayan rock salt.
I, at least, am feeling better, and I encourage T. K. with her wildlife spotting. Again we wait, allowing ample time to observe the brush turkeys, the birds flitting in the branches, the decor and, finally, our neighbours and their occasional expressions of discontent.
Our mains eventually arrive and my pork with a parmesan crust on a bed of apple and celeriac mash ($36) is just the right mix of crisp and tender, the meat complemented with a generous curve of crackling. The subtle mash offers the perfect balance to the rich pork, and steamed spinach supplies a satisfying quota of greens. The salad we’ve ordered, however, is a sorry affair. Of baby beetroot with roasted hazelnuts, shaved parmesan and wild rocket ($8), it is predominantly rocket, the odd leaf suspiciously faded, and when we toss through its dry top layer, we release a dressing that tastes like unmixed oil.
T. K. is not having a good day. Her poached salmon ($36), quite hot on one side, has otherwise cooled on its way to the table. It comes with a spicy, tropical mango salsa and sits on a fresh-looking mound of sliced snake beans, cherry tomatoes and bean sprouts scattered with peanuts. But she wants the fish at least warm and asks the waiter if something can be done. After a short wait the salmon reappears, heated but inexplicably broken into large chunks.
We are disconcerted by the slow service and what seems to be a lapse in kitchen supervision, but this is a beautiful setting and we’re not ready to give up. We order a Valrhona chocolate souffle pudding ($15) with two spoons, and coffees ($4 each). Our faith is rewarded. The warm pudding is filled with raspberry chocolate ganache and comes with toasted almond ice cream and is good, as is the coffee.
Songbirds is not a low-cost restaurant. The setting is stunning and the dishes well designed. While some have fulfilled their promise today, others have not. It is the Sunday of a long weekend and perhaps some staff are not regulars, but on today’s experience they could do with a shot of Gordon Ramsay’s rigour in the kitchen. It would be a tragedy for this beautiful restaurant to be allowed to lose focus. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
Songbirds in the Forest Tamborine Mountain Road, North Tamborine, Gold Coast, Queensland; (07) 5545 2563; www.songbirds.com.au. Open: Lunch daily from noon; dinner Thursday to Saturday. Cost: About $75 for three courses excluding drinks and sides. Set price of $60 for two courses, $75 for three, plus a surcharge, on Sundays and public holidays. Drink: Wines from Australia, NZ and France in 13 categories, plus liqueurs. Good range by the glass. Reason to return: To try the new autumn menu and to insist on the kind of attention to detail that this place deserves.
Brush with nature: Songbirds restaurant is open to the lush rainforest of Tamborine Mountain