A husband-and-wife team deliver one of our great regional surprises in an old church in the South-East
Down in the wine country of the state’s South-East, in that magical patch of rustcoloured dirt known as Terra Rossa, the name Bowen is part of local folklore – perhaps not in the league of Wynn, but sitting comfortably alongside Hollick, Zema and others.
Bowen Estate, where founder Doug has built a reputation around his big-hearted Coonawarra reds, is there on the left, just before you hit the little town of Penola.
And a few minutes further up the road, in a pretty little converted church, another generation of the family is building its own local legacy.
Simon Bowen might have decided against following in dad’s footsteps at the winery (sister Emma has done that) but, having cooked his way around Europe and the US, then done a stint at the famed Lake House in country Victoria, he did come home.
As well as all the experience he accumulated on the way, Simon brought back his partner-now-wife Erika, a Californian.
She’s the Bowen who greets us at the door of their restaurant, Pipers of Penola, and, while her accent might sound a little foreign, her warmth and easygoing hospitality feels right at home.
She also has a meticulous eye. Everything in the dining room is just-so: the fresh-cut flowers, spotless glassware, every napiery crease and piece of cutlery in the right place.
Water, wine and everything through to the bill arrive intuitively the moment before they are needed. And whether you’re the bunch of trainee doctors from the local hospital, or the nine-year-old at our table who is interested in dessert, the approach is just right.
Simon’s cooking shows the same understanding of his customer mix – plenty of familiar ingredients, nothing too “cheffy”, but exemplary technique and enough clever, contemporary touches to make this a special night out.
Yes, you can have steak and garlic mash (and mighty fine it is too) with an aged bottle of the region’s fabulous cabernet, but the menu is also dotted with farro, kale and even truffle.
Truffle, in fact, sets the scene from the start, in a luxurious few sips of mushroom velouté served in a demi tasse cup.
A butterflied quail, deboned other than the drummies, has a fragrant cumin rub that’s gone all toasty in the oven. The pieces are stacked atop a mound of couscous, with eggplant puree, strips of carrot and a scattering of sesame seeds.
Strips of squid fried in a crisp cornflour coating and dotted with poppy seeds are sweet and tender. A miso dressing, soba noodles, blobs of mayo with a smidgen of wasabi and barely pickled veg suggest a Japanese connection but it’s the seafood that stars.
A piece of seared red snapper (nannygai) beds down with the seductive sweetness and lush textures of roast fennel, onion and a cauliflower cream. A “tabouli” of finely shredded kale prevents things getting out of hand. Clever, very clever.
Three lamb loin cutlets are beyond reproach – perfect pink, tender, lovely flavour. But the slab of “braised forequarter” is rather dry, a pea and mint risotto on the bland side and blobs of salsa verde lack the cut that might have given it a lift.
On the other hand, a trifle-ish concoction of layers of vanilla crème de patisserie and poached rhubarb is terrific, the sherry coming in the top layer of Pedro Ximénez and chocolate sauce.
And puffy little balls of yeast doughnuts will leave sugar on your lips and a smile on your face, particularly with a silky hazelnut and vincotto ice cream.
Pipers is that kind of place. Given the size of Penola and its distance from the big cities, it’s a wonderful surprise, and another example of how our wine regions nurture some of the state’s best dining. You have to give it to those Bowens. MUST EAT Seared red snapper, roasted fennel and onion, vermouth cauliflower, kale tabouli ALSO CONSIDER Upstairs at Hollicks, Penola The Barn, Mount Gambier Soul Projects, Mount Gambier
The Balthazar of the Barossa 2010 Shiraz ($50) is a much more serious proposition, built from a single vineyard of three core blocks in the Marananga district itself.
Winemaker/proprietor Anita Bowen has gained a sense over the past 14 years of what each block and what parts of each block can produce, given a variation of soil types and fertility.
What she’s absolutely solid about is that her wines show best when they’re about four years old, and she doesn’t release them until all their elements – the big solid fruit, the two years in oak, the resulting aromatics, natural acidity wine – have integrated and begin to drink well.
And that’s exactly the tasting note you need. It has done all that and will only get better for another 10 years.
the Balthazar of the Barossa website, as well as the recently launched 2009, which also won its class at the 2012 Marananga show.
There also is a rare chance to buy the three individual 2010 block wines that
Patience, in this case, is the ultimate virtue.