THE COASTAL GET­AWAY TEST Pasta and pel­i­cans

No need to visit Europe for a slice of la dolce vita, re­ports Su­san Kuro­sawa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

Check­list

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.

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