THE NEXT BIG NOISE
Victoria Laurie samples French provincial fare in inner-suburban Perth
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.
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.
Before the rush: Must Winebar’s interior, left; the impressive charcuterie plate with a selection of pork offerings and glistening black tapenade