THE NEXT BIG NOISE

Vic­to­ria Lau­rie sam­ples French pro­vin­cial fare in in­ner-sub­ur­ban Perth

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

IT’S a Fri­day night and Beau­fort Street in High­gate, on Perth’s north­ern edge, is jiv­ing. It’s a per­fect strip for cashed-up sin­gles, a florist with con­tain­ers of flow­ers over­flow­ing on to the foot­path, an­tique stores and cof­fee shops. Af­ter work you can grab some flow­ers, buy a knick-knack and head up the street for a drinks ses­sion at any num­ber of wa­ter­ing holes. The street’s busy, bois­ter­ous Queens Ho­tel is Perth’s dat­ing cen­tral: prospec­tive cou­ples screech into each other’s ears over a beer and a bowl of Ca­jun potato wedges.

Just across the road from the ho­tel, crowd noise inside the Must Winebar is also nudg­ing the up­per deci­bel range. But in ev­ery other way, this bar cum bistro is far ahead of its com­peti­tors and has carved out its own niche in ca­sual fine din­ing. For­get the Ca­jun wedges; lean­ing el­bow to el­bow at the stylish bar with pen­dant light­ing and warm wood tones (or sit­ting at ta­bles on the pave­ment), you can or­der good wine by the glass and graze on pate and pork ter­rine with crusty bread. When you’re more than peck­ish (and if you’ve booked ahead), you can nav­i­gate round to the other side of the floor-to-ceil­ing wine rack that di­vides the bar area from the restau­rant.

Here, rows of small ta­bles with white pa­per­topped cloths and dark wooden chairs sug­gest a down-to-earth approach to din­ing. And to drink­ing: the enor­mous wine rack is no mere dec­o­ra­tion (nor does it act as any kind of sound bar­rier to the bar noise bounc­ing off the hard-sur­faced bistro in­te­rior). Must has a full­time som­me­lier on staff and has won na­tional awards for a list fea­tur­ing 500 wines from across the globe. In that rov­ing spirit, my com­pan­ion and I or­der sparkling wine from dif­fer­ent places: a glass of cham­pagne, Tait­tinger Brut NV ($16.50) and a lighter-bod­ied Tas­ma­nian Clover Hill 2003 Pipers River ($12.50), both in gen­er­ously sized flutes.

We tune out of the am­bi­ent Aussie chat­ter and imag­ine our­selves in a cosy French bistro where the chef is out back pre­par­ing a few pro­vin­cial dishes. It seems fit­ting that our im­pec­ca­bly at­ten­tive waiter turns out to be French and that he rec­om­mends Must’s char­cu­terie plate, pre­pared by the restau­rant’s head chef An­dre Mahe, a for­mer pork butcher from Brit­tany.

The French bistro model is pre­cisely what Must’s owner-chef Rus­sell Blaikie set out to em­u­late six years ago. A pop­u­lar Perth fig­ure who talks sen­si­bly about food on ra­dio, Blaikie cre­ated the eatery as a coun­ter­bal­ance to over­fussy menus and stiffly for­mal cor­po­rate din­ing. It worked: Must has won so many lo­cal restau­rant awards that it is now dis­qual­i­fied from en­ter­ing some cat­e­gories.

The en­trees we choose bear the hall­marks of the restau­rant’s suc­cess: good in­gre­di­ents beau­ti­fully cooked. My twice-baked blue manna crab souf­fle, with crab bisque sauce ($21.50), is pure com­fort food, ev­ery de­li­cious spoon­ful savoured. De­spite the souf­fle’s dou­ble bak­ing, the crab meat flakes are dis­cernible to the tongue. It sits in a creamy orange lake of pureed crab shells and tomato.

My part­ner du­ti­fully or­ders the char­cu­terie plate ($22.50), which is ex­cel­lent value and im­pres­sively ex­e­cuted. The rec­tan­gu­lar plat­ter holds three types of pork and a glis­ten­ing mound of salty black tape­nade, which acts as palate cleanser. There is a slice of pick­led pork and pars­ley ter­rine with a dab of herby rav­ig­ote may­on­naise, ril­lette (pork shoul­der cooked slowly in duck fat, onions, gar­lic, thyme and white wine, stripped from the bone and shred­ded) with gherkins, and a slice of pate en croute topped with pear chut­ney. This pork trio is a tri­umph, and teases the palate; we try to iden­tify all the in­gre­di­ents and a call to the restau­rant a few days later re­veals that the pate alone is a blend of coarsely ground pork, pis­ta­chio nuts, raisin grapes and co­gnac.

Dishes are cleared promptly and wa­ter glasses re­filled, de­spite the hec­tic on­slaught of din­ers mi­grat­ing from the bar and the up­stairs cock­tail lounge (a sound­proof haven in el­e­gant black and gold that opened six months ago and where you can nib­ble canapes while sip­ping glasses of Bollinger, cock­tails or any of a huge range of spir­its).

Our Ban­nock­burn Shi­raz 2003 ($74) is de­canted at the ta­ble and poured just as the main cour­ses ar­rive. My com­pan­ion has cho­sen the duck leg con­fit with warm potato, rocket and pear salad and flame grape jus ($36.50); it’s slow-cooked French-style and topped with a back­strap of glazed pork. There are tangy hints of cit­rus and star anise in the rich sauce, which is bal­anced with risotto-like soft lentils, roasted corn and cap­sicum.

Pre­dict­ing that I would tuck into a fair share of my com­pan­ion’s duck (we equally en­joy it and vie for the pork morsels), I choose a sim­pler main of half a dozen dukkah-crusted, seared Ex­mouth scal­lops served on a bed of car­rot puree with traces of pars­ley oil ($22.50).

This is a del­i­cate pair­ing that might be too bland for din­ers who like ro­bust flavours, but the Mid­dle East­ern touch adds a pleas­ing tex­ture. And it’s one of the restau­rant’s few dishes with­out red meat; there is also a pop­u­lar an­gel hair pasta with blue manna crab (or, when I visit, abalone), tomato and chilli ($22.50). There are some non-meat dishes but veg­e­tar­i­ans might need to aug­ment their meal with the gen­er­ous side of slen­der green beans ($10.50) or truf­fle oil mash ($7.50).

The desserts are equally gen­er­ous and made on the premises. Val­rhona choco­late delice with hazel­nut pra­line creme anglaise ($15.50) is served on a large dim­pled plate. For a French bistro feel, I opt for the creme brulee duo ($14.50), two small shal­low dishes flavoured with Grand Marnier and pineap­ple be­neath their tof­fee-like seal.

We’ve been told the place qui­etens down once the bar emp­ties, but the Fri­day night hub­bub per­sists un­til we can barely hear our waiter. Must is li­censed for 175, in­clud­ing pa­trons in a rear private din­ing room, and it seems ev­ery avail­able place has been taken.

West­ern Aus­tralia’s boom­ing re­source econ­omy has put the pres­sure on, at­tract­ing an in­flux of pro­fes­sional work­ers seek­ing de­cent wines and posh pub nosh. Like the boom it­self, no­body at Must seems to have quite fore­seen how fast de­mand would grow. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.

Check­list

Must Winebar 519 Beau­fort St, High­gate, Perth, WA. (08) 9328 8255; www.must.com.au. Open: Noon to 10.30pm daily. Cost: About $90 each, de­pend­ing on wine choice. Drink: Wide range of wines from Aus­tralia and over­seas; 40 avail­able by the glass. Rea­son to re­turn: For qui­eter din­ing ear­lier in the week.

Pic­tures: Bo­hdan War­chomij

Be­fore the rush: Must Winebar’s in­te­rior, left; the im­pres­sive char­cu­terie plate with a se­lec­tion of pork of­fer­ings and glis­ten­ing black tape­nade

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