THE COASTAL GETAWAY TEST Pasta and pelicans
No need to visit Europe for a slice of la dolce vita, reports Susan Kurosawa
HE notion of a celebrity chef’s country restaurant with guestrooms attached is very much a European tradition. In provincial France, in particular, it’s borne of the need for a good loosening of one’s stays and a lie-down after the sort of lunch that starts with a teeny-tiny appetiser and builds in quantity and decadence, course after course, to praline and chocolates and perhaps one more wafer-thin pour of sticky wine.
In Australia, we seem to think nothing of driving vast distances for a weekend lunch and then cutting things short because we have to drive home, the sober (and no doubt sorry) member of the party at the wheel. How thoroughly uncivilised.
But some down under establishments, such as Bells at Killcare where Sydney maestro Stefano Manfredi is in charge of the stoves on Saturdays and Sundays, have taken a European approach. This Central Coast estate is where one goes, unashamedly, to eat and drink.
Bells at Killcare originally was set up by local hoteliers Ian and Leonie Bell who previously ran the successful cottage-style Bells in a valley behind nearby MacMasters Beach. Their vision was of a rangy country homestead, with colonial furnishings and pert English flowerbeds. In 2006, advertising guru John Singleton and owner-managers Brian and Karina Berry bought the property and decided to emphasise its location within cooee of the coast.
So there’s been a shift of decor along more nautical lines with a refreshed colour scheme of maritime blues and fresh pastels and a stripping of carpets, fusty drapes and formal seating from the main manor house.
The accommodation has couples firmly in mind and consists of a pair of two-storey villas and nine singlelevel suites, clustered amid the thriving coastal gardens. Timber exteriors are painted a rich blue; with navyand-white blinds and plantation shutters, the feel is what designers surely would dub seaside chic. The roomy interiors feature fireplaces, flat-screen televisions (on upper and lower levels of the villas), comfy seating and bedding, and posh Aveda toiletries by the spa tub. The cane-furnished decks are pretty, too, with blue-and-white cushions in paisleys and checks and director’s chairs with cheery striped covers.
Our midweek stay is just before Christmas and Manfredi is not on site but the kitchen is in the hands of the talented Cameron Cansdell and the dinner menu is terrific, including such standouts as fish cheek soup with salsa pepperonata and crostini, and spinach, eggplant and buffalo milk ricotta cannelloni. We can drink veritable vineyards of the house red — a silky Montepulciano drop that is a Manfredi favourite — and all but roll into bed.
The day’s menu is provided in each villa or suite so one can start salivating practically upon arrival. It’s a short stroll up to the manor house, past frog-filled ponds, Manfredi’s meshed herb patch (to protect from pesky brush turkeys), his flourishing plot of organic veg (from lamb’s-tongue lettuce to myriad varieties of tomato) and a trimmed lawn ideal for bocce and croquet. I recommend a drink in the cosy bar before dinner and, on a warm summer’s evening, a reservation for a table on the covered veranda.
There are generous breakfast provisions in the fridge and on the bench of the kitchenette, including espresso di Manfredi, our chef’s special blend of coffee packaged by Piazza d’Oro. Also provided are organic fruit juices, thick bread, house-made sausages (pork, sage, garlic and white wine), crunchy granola, free-range eggs (with bits of chook-house straw still attached), honey and jam from the Manfredi kitchen and bacon from Sydney’s favourite smallgoods butcher, Pino Tomini Foresti of Pino’s Dolce Vita Fine Foods.
Not quite so continental and charming, however, is the gas barbecue on each villa and suite deck. It’s provided instead of a stovetop and seems unnecessarily
Only the best: Bells at Killcare’s head chef Stefano Manfredi gathers produce from the vegetable garden fiddly (although this is a sure-fire way to get one’s chap to offer to cook breakfast; perhaps you could pack his favourite tongs and apron printed with the obligatory naff joke). And be warned that Killcare kookaburras are connoisseurs of gourmet sausage and superior bacon, as you may discover if you leave the grill unattended.
If you are not too bushed, there should be ample opportunity over a weekend stay for some sprightly stepping out. A copy of Bouddi Walks by Jeanette Blomfield (Killcare Wagstaffe Trust) is provided in each villa and suite; check its maps and detailed walking routes and lace up those well-shod boots. Allow time in summer for a cobweb-clearing swim at bush-fringed Putty Beach at the northern end of Killcare Beach.
Or take a leisurely cruise of Brisbane Water from Woy Woy wharf aboard Starship Cruises’ Lady Kendall II. Be prepared for platoons of pelicans and perhaps leave time for just-shucked oysters and seafood platters at Woy Woy’s Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant, which juts over the water; there are daily pelican feedings in the shallows of the adjoining waterfront park at 3pm.
This stay is too brief for us to summon an in-room massage by top local therapist Ellen McCall; manage-
Hide and peep: A guest villa in the secluded garden
Bells at Killcare is about 90 minutes by car from the Sydney CBD. Nearest station is Woy Woy (about 10 minutes by taxi). Midweek from $350 a couple a night; check dinner-inclusive packages and weekend specials. Last-minute deals at www.bestrates.com.au or www.needitnow.com.au. More: (02) 4360 2411; www.killcarebells.com.au. www.starshipcruises.com.au www.visitnsw.com Bells at Killcare was a finalist in the Best Food Experience category of TheAustralian’s recent Travel & Tourism Awards and named Travel&Indulgence’s top regional restaurant of 2008.