Friends for dinner
On a wintry night Matthew Denholm gets a warm welcome at a Hobart home away from home
RRIVING at Monty’s on Montpelier is like arriving at a friend’s place for a dinner party. For a start, this relatively new addition to the Hobart restaurant scene is in an old house. ‘‘ Our restaurant is our home: welcome,’’ Monty’s website proclaims, and we soon discover this is more than an empty marketing mantra.
Rather than being ushered straight to our table, we are encouraged to warm ourselves by the open fire in a loungeroom bar while enjoying pre-dinner drinks. Only when we feel sufficiently thawed and primed are we led to an adjacent room, where our table basks in front of another fire.
It is not long before the restaurant’s co-owner, Nat Starkey, introduces herself; we discover she was an airline cabin attendant for 11 years and it shows in her attentive service. We have heard of a couple who one night called to cancel a booking at Monty’s after their children fell ill, only to have Nat offer to have a staff member home-deliver a meal. The anecdote — confirmed by Nat — underlines her commitment to going the extra yards in customer service.
The restaurant interior is informal and, just like most homes, filled with an eclectic collection of art and furniture. I’m not sure the main dining room’s fur-lined windows would work at my place, but every home is allowed its idiosyncrasies.
Our table is in this main room; however, from it we can see through an open doorway to the library, where fellow diners sit beneath book-lined shelves, warmed by yet another log fire. You’d have to plant an entire forest to offset all this carbon-belching heating, but as icy rain is falling tonight no one is complaining.
The menu, too, is warming and packed with hearty fare. Menus are changed monthly by Nat’s chef husband, Matt; ours is perfectly suited to the tail end of winter.
I open my account with new-season scallop pie over fondant potato, with sunflower greens, chive oil and a balsamic reduction ($22). Scallop pies are a Tassie treat of long standing. Usually purchased from a take-away establishment and sometimes laced with curry powder, they are the state’s stodgy emblem in the way that pie floaters are South Australia’s. The petite parcel before me is nothing like the popular version. I feel at first disappointed by its smallness, but when the thin, crisp pastry is broken with the tap of a fork, an astonishing number of scallops explode on to the plate, accompanied by an oozing sauce. The scallops are succulent and tender, and still taste of the sea.
My companion, Francoise, takes the pan-fried potato gnocchi, tumbled through a Bruny Island 1792 cream sauce with toasted walnuts and charred pear ($17). She finds the gnocchi perfectly cooked and is pleased by the combination of textures, from the crunchy walnuts to the soft pear and gooeyness of the Bruny Island cheese.
Cheese is a recurring theme at Monty’s, which claims to have ‘‘ the best cheese selection of any restaurant in the country’’. Whether this is true is difficult to establish, but with 29 cheeses listed I’m not game to argue. We learn that it was cheese that first led Matt (and eventually Nat) to Tasmania. He visited the state while working for a Western Australia-based cheese distributor, fell in love with the place and, says Nat, nagged her into abandoning their life in WA for a new challenge. Monty’s on Montpelier opened about 18 months ago, with Matt — formerly at Perth’s Western Australian Club — as head chef. Initially, the couple
A winter’s tale: A log fire and shelves stacked with books create a cosy atmosphere for dining at Monty’s on Montpelier in Hobart
Slow-braised Crofton Lea pork belly with marinated scallops, sweet corn puree and a port reduction ($18)
Pan-fried potato gnocchi in an organic roquefort cream with charred beurre bosc pear and wild rocket ($20)
Char-grilled Longford eye fillet over local potatoes served with a faggot of spring vegetables, yorkshire pudding and beef cheek jus ($34)
Soft-baked Italian meringue in a chilled raspberry and vanilla bean soup ($12)
Choice of 25 to 30 cheeses, $11 a cheese or six cheeses for $55 (40g portion) lived in the rooms above the restaurant. They have since moved out and have plans to extend the restaurant upstairs.
But back to cheese: Nat has politely suggested we consider ordering our cheeseboard now so that it has time to adjust to room temperature. I select two, more about which later.
We are also by now enjoying the wine, a fullflavoured 2004 Bass Block 1 Pinot Noir ($53) from the Tamar Valley. The wine list is modest in size but intelligently constructed, featuring favourites as well as a few lesser-known wines from Tasmania, mainland Australia, Europe and New Zealand.
For my main, I choose one of tonight’s specials, a seafood, chorizo and Rivendale capretto paella ($32). The capretto (I suppose the words baby goat or kid on a menu may offend some) is beautifully tender, falling off the bone. The house-made and crisply cooked chorizo provides an interesting counterpoint to the moist rice and seafood (chiefly mussels, which I find a little on the small side, and prawns). Unifying all of these is a traditional paella base and the sum of these parts is an enormously satisfying dish.
Francoise has opted for the less creative ‘‘ surf and turf’’ ($34). While lacking originality, the 300g chargrilled Longford yearling scotch fillet is perfectly tender and the Queensland tiger prawns large and succulent (although still in their shells, much to Francoise’s annoyance). The protein fix is well accompanied by purple congo potatoes and blanched broccolini.
Aware that I have cheese to come, I decide against dessert. Francoise has a separate digestive system reserved exclusively for sweet food, however, and orders the soft-centred chocolate pudding with house-made blue cheese ice cream and a port reduction ($12). Matt seems to specialise in booby-trapped cuisine and the pudding releases its sauce with a gush at the first prod. It is, Francoise informs me, a perfect pudding: soft, moist and delicious.
We had been sceptical about the blue cheese ice cream and on first taste there is a confusion of signals between taste buds and brain: is it savoury or sweet? We decide it doesn’t matter; in concert with the pudding, it works a treat.
I have chosen two very different local cheeses ($11 each). One is the Bruny Island 1792 already encountered by Francoise. It is a stunning, washed-rind cheese named for the year French explorers arrived in Tasmania. Matured on Huon pine boards and with a yellowing rind, it has an earthy taste of mushrooms or truffles and melts in the mouth. The second is Tongola Billy, an aged goat cheese. Hard on the outside, it is moister and mellower than many comparable cow cheeses. Both are an excellent accompaniment to a last glass of the Bass Block 1. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
Monty’s on Montpelier 37 Montpelier Retreat, Battery Point, Hobart. (03) 6223 2511; www.montys.com.au. Open: Dinner only, Tuesday-Saturday, 6pm to late. Cost: Three-course dinner for two with pre-dinner drinks, bottle of wine and coffees: about $200. Reasons to return: Faultless service; intimate, homely atmosphere; formidable cheese selection.