PITCHING IT UP
Adelaide Oval’s new restaurant puts the fine back into dining with its formal approach. But does the food fit the bill?
My somewhat fuzzy memories of watching cricket from The Hill at Adelaide Oval revolve around too many plastic cups of beer, not enough sunscreen, and someone in the crowd with a striking resemblance to legendary opening batsman David Boon.
While the towering new stands of the renovated arena are closing in, that grassy slope and famous old scoreboard have survived, for now at least.
We can see them across the hallowed turf from our dress circle seat in the Oval’s other “Hill” – a cultural experience that couldn’t be more different in style or content. Here, waiters clad in ninja black are careful to mind their p’s and q’s, while the beverage of choice is Henschke wines, including the stellar Hill of Grace that has given the place its name.
HoG Restaurant is the stadium managers’ answer to bringing people (and revenue) in when there is no footy, cricket or Mick Jagger. Taking over a sweeping curved room still occupied by big-ticket corporates on match day, they have created one of Adelaide’s most formal diners. At $175 food only for the premium eight-course degustation, it is more expensive than Orana and Hentley Farm, and on a par with Magill Estate.
It’s a package that demands a lot from the kitchen headed by chef Dennis Leslie, who has boldly opted to use ingredients and techniques reflecting his Filipino heritage as a point of difference.
The HoG menu is full of references such as “sisig”, “laing” and “mongo” that are as much a mystery here as Bradman and Boof would be on the streets of Manila. Think the fruitiness and coconut of the tropics cut with some Asian-style tang and sourness, and you’re on track.
Put this food in a contemporary setting, with a bit of liveliness and soul, and I reckon it would rock. But with such carefully manicured plating, alongside those wines, in this room, at that price, it feels at times like a scruffy kid squeezed into a tuxedo. It doesn’t help that our arrival has caused mild hysteria among some staff. After a mass gathering around the kitchen, the very likable young bloke who had been assigned to serve us is sent to Siberia and replaced with someone more senior. No pressure then.
At least our new man knows his calamansi from his quandongs. It’s juice from the former, a small citrus fruit, that is used to “cook” slices of kingfish in a Filipino version of ceviche drizzled with coconut cream. But it’s the potent prawnshell punch of a cracker balanced on top that lingers long after the plate is gone.
Tamarind-marinated quail breast is roasted, then charred until dark and smoky with the barest tinge of pink inside. It rests on a big dollop of a fruity tamarind chutney, while strips of pickled kohlrabi add freshness and crunch. Flowers pretty it up but seem out of place on such a robust combination.
Pork belly and jowl are slow cooked, diced and seared for a dressed-up version of the street food “sisig”. Mix the piggy bits together with a soft-boiled egg, dijon “custard” and plenty of deep-fried shallot and you have the “fried onion and mayo” qualities that make dude food so addictive. A bun, please.
Another pork dish, this time with a “crumble” of crushed crackling and a sweet/sour syrup of quandongs and muntries, seems too much of a good thing.
In between a fried mullet fillet, raw cockles, shavings of raw squid tube, wakame and sprigs of greenery are more subtle, with the accompanying “laing” sauce of coconut milk and taro leaves like a funky green curry sauce.
Matching the Hill of Grace, a wine of extraordinary poise, brings a pragmatic response, and the exotica is set aside for a course of beef fillet, roasted mushrooms, a pumpkin puree and sour cherry jus. No surprise that this is HoG’s biggest seller.
The two desserts are excellent. Dense, moist “tres leche” (three milk) cake is surrounded by mixed citrus curd, sorbet, marmalade and dried flakes. Beautiful. And stout and sour dough ice cream, dates and pecans, guava custard, jelly and marshmallow is an amusement park of textural tricks and surprises.
It’s great fun and welcome relief in a restaurant that needs to loosen up. Perhaps the staff should spend an afternoon on that other Hill. just been bottled and we’ll see that in a few months, its lovely honeyed blossom aromas just emerging. The 2013 vintage, however, is not ready to be superseded, settled beautifully and stunningly pure technique to give a fuller, more satisfying expression of the variety.
A tasting of earlier versions from 2005 and 2002 show just what kind of magic these envelop with eight years and beyond on them. At $22 a bottle they’re a wonderful long-term investment.
Now for Clare reds. The Mitchell 2010 Peppertree Shiraz ($25) is clear- headed in its cooler-climate styling, white pepper spicing to the fore, barely any note of oak, and for want of a popular if nebulous term, it’s truly elegant and
The Mitchell 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($27) is something else again, current with seven years maturity to allow the variety the proper time to reveal its wonderful black fruits, chocolate-like tannins smoothing now, and delightful medium-weight integrity.
When it comes to patience, Andrew showed true grit to wait for it on skins for 40 days and nights to build its natural structure and balance. It’s a genius wine for the price now and most likely for another decade.