TABLES AUTUMN REIGNS
Christine McCabe takes shelter in a McLaren Vale winery restaurant with seasonal flair
WHEN the autumn weekend dawns grey and wet, South Aussie farmers and gardeners get out among it, sowing seeds, planting bulbs or, in our case, clambering about the roof, cleaning gutters and unclogging rainwater pipes.
This transitional season represents an alchemy of sorts as, almost overnight, dry paddocks turn to green and grapevines become spun gold, a transformation that’s the source of constant exclamation from the back seat as we dart, en famille, along the back roads of McLaren Vale, on the Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide, on our way to a well-earned lunch.
Penny’s Hill cellar door fits neatly into this bucolic scene, a large tin shed set behind a handsome Georgian farmhouse with black-faced sheep grazing in the paddocks and fat chooks scratching beneath the gum trees.
The Kitchen Door (formerly the Red Dot Cafe) occupies one section of this enormous shed and, although cavernous and sparsely furnished, with polished concrete floors and pitched ceiling, feels toasty warm.
Large windows look on to the newly green paddocks, an outdoor dining terrace and, in the distance, an old oak tree tied with a yellow ribbon. Cute to be sure, but the restaurant has a more grown-up feel, with white linen tablecloths, busy floor staff and a suave cellar-door crowd sporting designer specs and fashionable cardies.
They’re here for the same reason we are: Ben Sommariva’s food. Having worked at a number of restaurants in Adelaide and the Vale (including a stint at the nearby d’Arry’s Verandah), Sommariva has transformed this one-time cafe into a serious restaurant, dishing up some of the best cellar-door food in the state. (Last year his team clinched a Restaurant & Catering South Australia gong for the country’s best restaurant in a winery.)
The small seasonal menu, which changes every two months, is complemented by a wellpriced, five-course degustation with matched Penny’s Hill wines, and tapas-style snacks can be had at the cellar door proper.
We start with some crusty bread and olive oil splodged, Jackson Pollock-fashion, with a 25-year-old syrupy-sweet balsamic ($3.50) and washed down with a glass of the winery’s rather pleasant rose ($6).
Our entrees arrive promptly and to a plate are excellent: the chicken and ham hock terrine ($15.50) is light and tasty, served with a local organic wholemeal bread; the waldorf salad ($15) outstanding, combining nashi pear (rather than the traditional apple) with baby cos, celery hearts, walnuts and Roquefort. Ocean trout gravlax ($16) comes atop two herb-flecked blinis, while grilled Kangaroo Island abalone ($18), served with braised red and white witlof and a perky capsicum salsa, is perfectly cooked, lightly caramelised, yet sweet and creamy.
While perusing the cellar-door wine list — the Galvanized Wine Group encompasses several labels, including Penny’s Hill — we pause to enjoy the soporific rural scene: misting rain, drifts of sheep and a neat, toy-town post and rail fence separating livestock from vines. With this much weather we’ve the perfect excuse to hunker down and order additional provisions.
The autumn mains are more than a match for our rain-sharpened appetites, especially the slow-braised oxtail ($26), which two of our party have chosen. It falls off the bone and melts in the mouth, served in a broth studded with peas and carrots and accompanied by delicious truffle and celeriac agnolotti.
The pan-roasted lamb rump with minted eggplant caviar ($30) is cockle warming; likewise the marinated and grilled poussin ($28) served with a sweet carrot puree and earthy mushroom ragout. Perfect with the 2006 Penny’s Hill McLaren Vale grenache ($7 a glass).
The all-chocolate dessert menu gets the thumbs-up from our sons. They’re even prepared to endure a seemingly endless 15-minute wait for the bitter chocolate souffle ($10.50).
The restaurant is busy but the excellent service never falters. Every time the boys leave the table, their napkins are neatly refolded. And no one bats an eyelid when, quite inexplicably, a man wearing khakis and a pith helmet arrives to dine. On wine safari, perhaps.
Sadly, dear readers (and fellow big wine hunters), the autumn menu finishes this week, but visitors to the lovely McLaren Vale can look forward to a tempting winter line-up in its place. You can be sure the new menu will have been carefully workshopped by chef Sommariva, restaurant manager James Spreadbury and winemaker Ben Riggs to provide a thoughtful balance between the Penny’s Hill stable of wines and the Fleurieu Peninsula’s tempting array of home-grown produce.
Sommariva visits the nearby Willunga Farmers Market most weekends and sources almost all his produce locally, from Coorong beef to Fleurieu seafood. This farm-to-plate approach, combined with a seamless front-of-house operation, is clearly a winner. Long may it rain. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for. The Kitchen Door Penny’s Hill & Mr Riggs Cellars, Main Road, McLaren Vale. (08) 8556 4000; www.pennyshill.com.au. Open: Seven days for lunch, noon-3pm; platters available at the cellar door until 4pm. Cost: Entrees, $15-$18; mains, $22-$30. Five-course tasting menu, $47-$57, with matched wines. Drink: Cellar-door wines: Red Dot, Mr Riggs, Penny’s Hill and Black Chook, plus a small selection of imported wines and Australian and French bubbles. Reason to return: A winery that takes its food this seriously is always worth a second visit.
Country comforts: Rustic fare with a contemporary twist at Ben Sommariva’s acclaimed Kitchen Door restaurant, main picture