TA­BLES AU­TUMN REIGNS

Chris­tine McCabe takes shel­ter in a McLaren Vale win­ery restau­rant with sea­sonal flair

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.

Check­list

Pic­tures: Brett Hartwig

Coun­try com­forts: Rus­tic fare with a con­tem­po­rary twist at Ben Som­mariva’s ac­claimed Kitchen Door restau­rant, main pic­ture

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