Hungry in the Hunter

So, you’ve found somewhere to catch 40 winks in wine country, now it’s time to work on the all important eating agenda.  I am a self confessed eat-a-holic!  I don’t just like to eat food, I like to talk about it, write about it, watch it, read it, photograph it, cook  it and generally just worship it.

Food is an intrinsic part of my psyche and can take up to 95% of my brains power and focus at any one time.  My husband said to me early on in our courtship, that I was the only person he knew that woke up in the morning wondering what she was was going to have for dinner.   “How can you think about dinner before you’ve eaten breakfast or lunch?”  Pffffft.

And, if you are part of my family  (with the exception of Dad), this is very normal.  We all love food, and not just the taste or the act of eating, but the sense of shared experience in preparing and enjoying a meal with family and friends that creates lasting memories.  I always recount my top 5 dishes at the end of each year and all the important things that have happened in my life are remembered by what I was eating or wanted to eat at the time.  (Here’s my Facebook post from the end of last year, My Year in Food, just so you know I am not making this obsession with food up to make my blog more interesting.  But, smellavision would almost certainly make blogging about food a whole lot better!

Remember always book in advance if possible!  Wine Country can get busy, and even if it is midweek and not that busy it always helps restaurants staff accordingly if people book in advance.

Anyway, to the list, Top Ten eats in Wine Country, recommended by me, the girl who loves food! (in no particular order):

Bistro Molines: A Hunter institution brimming with joi de vivre and rustic charm.  The creative couple behind this hillside foodie haven,  Sally and Robert Molines have been well established in the Hunter for over 30 years in a number of different guises, but their current home on the hill in Mount View is a perfect reflection of them and their attitude to dining out.  Impeccable, but friendly service, rustic French fare, fresh eggs from their own chooks and views that make you think you are in Provence or Tuscany (or so I am told never having been to either of these much longed for exotic destinations).  Anything Robert does with figs and rabbit are worth a try and the local snails often featured on the menu are swoon worthy rather than squirmy.  But, locals flock here for Robert’s pate which is as famous now as it was 30 years ago.

Leaves & Fishes: This is one of those special places where the casual charm of a truly family business emanates from the setting to the food to the decor.  There is something very authentic about Leaves & Fishes and every time I eat there, I leave with a smile and look forward to going back.  The food is fresh and thoughtful, but never pretentious and the interior styling is part shabby chic part country chic with a hodgepodge of beautiful pieces and a sense of abundance.  Jacob who can be found running the floor most days is off beat but welcoming and part of the charm of this establishments slightly left of centre offering.  My go to dish is the seared ocean trout with very crispy skin and the calamari popcorn with chilli-ginger caramel.

The Cellar Restaurant: Another hunter institution, known for its big open fire in winter and cooling indoor plants in summer.  Long known for its modern Australian cuisine it now has a more focussed menu offering a range of different cuts of meat and seafood, with a choice of sauces and sides.  The sides are often good enough to be a meal in their own right, and do be tempted by a few of the aptly named Tasty Morsels and Chef Andy Wright’s famous Charcuterie.  This is my crowd pleaser pick with something on this menu for everyone, from the adventurous eater to the steak and three veg type.  With a warm country vibe, it’s hard not to feel at ease here.  Try the calamari with fennel and orange, the deboned spatchcock or Tajima skirt steak for main and the roast heirloom carrots with labne and the must have cauliflower cheese with jamon crumbs.

County Dining: A little further afield in Morpeth (half an hour from Pokolbin proper) but well worth the trip and with some serious foodie credentials.   I only have two words to describe the meal I had here recently, indulgent and moreish.  They spend as much time thinking about where the food has come from as they do preparing it and serving it.  In their own words, “We are not tied to a particular cuisine style and can simply utilise the produce that is available to us from our own garden and our chosen suppliers in the best way, to showcase the natural flavour of the ingredients.  Our diners can expect classic regional dishes and known flavour combinations, presented with care and precision, plus a little bit of old fashioned love and hospitality.” And, they deliver exactly what they promise, all in the most divine historical surrounds of the original Arnott’s bakehouse in this quaint country town.

Emerson’s Cafe and Restaurant: Most of the restaurants you will find on this list are run by devoted husband and wife teams, and that seems to be the recipe for success. Emerson’s is no exception with the namesake a quietly spoken but confident young chef and his wife running the floor.  A produce driven leaning and a good option if you don’t want to give the hip pocket too hard a workout.  Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the menu delivers old favourites without being clichéd and it steps up a notch for dinner with a degustation option.  For lunch my money is one the Black Angus sirloin with cafe de Paris butter, house made chips and garden salad.  Pretty good value at $24.  But the small share plates, especially the chicken wings with house made bbq sauce get me excited as does the Baked ash coated pork fillet & slow roasted pork belly, prunes, cavolo nero cream and sautéed potatoes on the dinner menu.

Muse Restaurant: Another rock star husband and wife team, Troy and Megan Rhoades-Brown are the ‘it’ couple of country dining at the moment, and very worthy of the title.  Polished is the best way to describe this eating establishment and definitely the place to impress.  Service is fine-tuned and food is fancy, but equally delicious and authentic, set off by a team that hums from front to back of house. Dishes featuring Petuna Ocean Trout or Milly Hill Lamb are classics and you can always be assured that as much thought has gone into the actual flavour combinations as it has the presentation.  This is classy cooking in an environment that clearly aims for world class recognition.  The ambition, drive and incredible attention to detail of the Rhoades-Brown team may very well get them there.

Restaurant Botanica: Another well-credentialed husband and wife team, Mark and Belinda Stapleton know their stuff, both in the kitchen, on the floor, in the garden and whatever the name of the place is that you cure your own meats. With a firm eye on the paddock to plate philosophy, the 5 course signature menu gives you a true taste of how crafty this couple are.  House made yoghurt, house cured prosciutto (I do believe it even came from one of their own pigs…), and house baked bread, where do they get the time?  The good news is their labour of love is your reward.  A convivial atmosphere that reminds you it is about the integrity of the food and the act of enjoying a meal, rather than being overtly ostentatious about any part of the process.  Leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling every time.

The Verandah: Matt Dillow has been pumping out great tapas at this locals haunt for some time now and it is a magnet for those who want to enjoy fast, fresh and causal, honest food without unnecessary fuss.  The tapas tower is not just filling and economical but gets the taste buds zinging as it criss crosses cuisines from across the world.  Bigger might just be better in this instance! House made dips with crisp flat bread, orange and spiced mixed olives, charred red capsicum filled with house made labna, rocket and parmesan salad, rockmelon wrapped prosciutto, grilled haloumi with rhubarb compote, cumin and cayenne baby calamari with lime aioli, spanish croquettes, grilled chorizo, lime and paprika chicken skewers, Asian style pork belly and crispy chat potatoes with garlic.

Harrigan’s Irish Pub: Okay, fine dining, plate to paddock and food with integrity make up 9 of the ten places on this list.  But, sometimes you just need a pub meal, with a playground for the kids and where everyone can order what they want without worrying about the mortgage.  This is family dining Hunter style and it does it well.  Expect all the expected, garlic bread, caesar salad, gourmet pizza, fish and chips and steak.  Be warned, it is generally busy to very busy and depending what else is on in the hunter that weekend, it can be out of control busy.  But, there are a number of different places to eat, indoors, outdoors, live music (I’m not committing to good live music) and for a country pub, there’s no false advertising here.

Margan Restaurant: A little further afield in the pretty village of Broke Fordwich, this restaurant is well known for its sustainable approach.  Up to 90% of the produce used in the menu is grown in the kitchen garden and they are so serious about the integrity of their suppliers their names are often listed on the menu.  But the food manages to live up to the green credentials with a contemporary take on classical European flavours.  The David Blackmore Wagyu brisket sounds enticing as does the smoked potato gnocchi with Margan garden vegetables.  The best bit is of course the ever changing menu to reflect the seasons and the beautiful outlook from the verandah across the kitchen garden to the rather imposing Brokenback Mountain range.


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