Now, you might not need any convincing to head up to the Hunter Valley on your next trip to New South Wales, Australia. Knowing it’s the country’s oldest and one of its most exciting wine regions may be all the reason you need. But just in case you needed a little extra motivation, S and I have sussed out two amazing places that alone are reason enough to head up to Hunter.
1. The Rock restaurant and Andrew Clarke’s stunning food
There are good vineyard and wine country restaurants and then there are great ones. The Rock restaurant at Poole’s Rock Wines is definitely one of the latter. It’s been named the Australia’s Best Restaurant in a Winery at the 2008 Restaurant and Catering Association awards. It is the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide’s highest ranked restaurant in Hunter, and the only restaurant in the region with two hats. Housed in a glass-walled building, overlooking a block of 90-year old shiraz vines, the clean modern room and its views are equally inviting. The Rock is actually two restaurants in one. By day, it is the Firestick Cafe, a cool, contemporary cafe that serves simple but beautifully made cafe food: wood-fired, thin crust pizzas; a luxe wagyu burger with caramelized onions and fries; pork schnitzel and crushed potato, rocket and waldorf salad. The pizzas looked especially gorgeoous. And I love Chef Andrew Clarke’s combination ideas, like the confit pork belly, caramelized fennel and gherkins pizza.
By night, tableclothes get laid down, the waiters trade their T-shirts in for more formal attire, and the lights are dimmed to create a suitably chic mood. The dinner menu is proof of a not just talented but supremely confident chef. Choose from just 10 savoury items, each available in 3 sizes, and 4 desserts. Savvy diners should pick the smallest size and sample as many items as possible. S and I were blown away by Clarke’s abilities.
His food demonstrated a real appreciation and understanding of flavours. Each dish was well thought-out and was beautifully presented. There was a level of restraint in the food that implied real understanding and experience. We had the pleasure of tasting 5 items. We started with Iberico ham with white asparagus, zebra tomato and tomato jelly. This dish was beautifully balanced, the natural sweetness in the tomato jelly and zebra tomatos working perfectly to complement and offset the Spanish ham. We knew, after this very first dish, we were in the hands of a great chef.
Next was a scallop tortellini with swiss brown mushroom, crisp pancetta and Riesling cream. I loved the sauce for this–it was essentially a lighter than normal, slightly sweet beurre blanc. Wonderful. We then had a Wagyu rump (steak) with a kidney pie, wilted spinach and bordelaise sauce. Chef Clarke again demonstrated his mastery of sauces, producing a classic bordelaise flawlessly. The wagyu was lovely and we loved the twist on the traditional and heavy steak and kidney pie. After this we had a composed cheese course: Fleur du Maquis with cranberry paste, rosemary mousse, red wine and walnut toast. This was nice. The Fleur du Maquis, a sheep’s milk cheese from Corsica, worked very well with the accompaniments. Again, Clarke’s insistence in balancing flavours came through.
Dessert was a truffle creme brulee, served by a very attractive, tan waitress who told us that this was a dish that she at first didn’t expect to like but now loves. We agree. Served with a light cat’s tongue cookie, the black-truffle spiked, sweet cream was a joy to devour.
I have to admit that we went to the Rock not knowing what to expect. We left totally blown away.
576 DeBeyers Road, Pokolbin
Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia
Tel: +61 2 4998 6968
Regular readers already know that I am a little obsessed with Chef Armando Percuoco’s food. Recently, I found out that this amazing and iconic restaurateur also owns a one bedroom villa in the Hunter. S and I had actually intended to spend all of our time in NSW in Sydney itself. There were so many restaurants we wanted to eat in, so many friends we wanted to catch up with, and so many shops we wanted to check out… Then we heard about Percuoco’s Valley Field Escape and immediately decided that a quick trip to Hunter was a must.
Valley Field Escape is a quick 90 minute drive from the city. Set amongst the olive groves on Percuoco’s 230 acre property, you won’t find a holiday home more private. And more surprisingly chic and well-designed. The villa, designed by PikeWithers is stunning. It consists of a large open plan dining and living room with a fire place; a large comfy bedroom; a nice outdoor deck overlooking the olive groves; and the nicest bathroom I have had the pleasure of using in years. Honestly, the bathroom was just sensational and fabulously well-appointed. From the heated bathroom floors to the 180 degree views, it was really quite special.
Guests are asked, upon reserving the villa, to select a dinner menu (if they choose to dine-in, which is highly recommended). The food, of course, is prepared by Percuoco–which, to me, is an additional selling point. All of your food is vacuum packed and placed in the fridge before your arrival. Each item has clear directions for reheating. S and I had a lovely dinner of homemade sausages bound with truffle egg, finished with lemon extra virgin olive oil; short pasta, pancetta, onions and fresh peas in chicken broth with parmesan; slow roasted lamb shoulder with rosemary, garlic and wine; and “thousand” layers of apple slices baked with sugar. We ate our dinner very leisurely, while enjoying a bottle of local wine, a Noyce Brothers 2009 Rose, and watching a great, classic film. S and I also highly approved of the well-chosen selection of CDs and DVDs that came with the villa. All the movie choices were good, solid films that couples might enjoy on holiday. Very smart.
We also took some time to explore the grounds around the villa. Percuoco is an avid art collector and he has placed sculptures all around the property. We also enjoyed checking out Armando and Gemma’s vegetable garden.
We really loved our all too short stay at Valley Field Escape. S compared it to some of the Aman resorts I have brought her too, and even went so far as to say that Valley Field Escape was more functionally designed than Aman and because of that, she would rank it as an ever better place to visit and spend a holiday.
For information on bookings, click here.
Two more reasons… just in case.
Some of you might prefer more modern or more industrial-chic digs while on holiday. If you do, Tonic Hotel is worth checking out. This cool, minimalist hotel has just 8 guest rooms. The rooms are bright, clean and very spartan, but are at the same time very comfortable. I would especially recommend Tonic for young couples travelling together. In addition to the guest rooms, there is a central lounge, which is ideal for chilling out with friends over drinks.
And speaking of drinks, how could I write about Hunter without talking about the wine. There’s no way I can review all of the many fabulous wineries in Hunter. But I will say that if you do make it up (and you really should), then you definitely have to stop off at the Small Winemakers Centre, if only to buy a bottle of Andrew Thomas’ Kiss Shiraz, one of the very best shiraz in a valley famous for shiraz. This great centre represents 5 small winemakers. Stand at the counter and go through several rounds of free tastings. Or head up to the Icon Lounge where several of the more premium wines are available for very reasonable prices. This is a great place to try some of Hunter’s more interesting and smaller wine producers.