22 April, 2009

Western Australia

As we've already discovered in South Australia and Tasmania, making travel plans centred on Australia's great wine regions is a sure way to develop a holiday punctuated by exciting tastes and experiences.

Margaret River is a special region, situated so close to some truly stunning coastline features, with crystalline beachs of aqua, turquoise and white, and phenomenal limestone caves with hidden entrances and enchanting, glittering interiors. (Happy to stand corrected on this, but is it also quite a bit flatter than other wine regions?)

The Cape Dutch-style buildings at Voyager Estate proudly display their construction date of 1996. With the food on offer inside, however, here's hoping they are able to one day indicate a rather longer heritage! The menu descriptions leave you well-prepared for the price when you get to the end, but if you've got the funds, it's worth it. It's rare that a meat dish can be presented with such visual appeal that it's a shame to cut into it, but they achieve that with the (world's largest) mustard-rubbed pork cutlet with Persian fetta crumble (yes please!), celeriac mash and roasted apples. That's right, apples, not potatoes (no, the cider from Saturday's festival at Kellybrook hasn't addled my recollection!).
I'd been dreaming of a tasting plate of local produce, picked at while gazing onlawns rolling away to rows of vines dreaming of autumn. Voyager's 'breads and spreads' allowed a close approximation: toasted slices of their own bread with venison chorizo and a range of house condiments, olives, dukkah and oil. Oh, was I happy. While I normally eschew venison, this chorizo was superb. The star of the condiments was eggplant kasundi (can anyone offer more info on kasundi?). It's essentially eggplant pickle, with onion, chilli, lime, ginger, sugar, five spice, vinegar, cardamom and oil. (My taste detectors aren't that good - I read the label on a jar!)
Several breweries have sprung up in the region as well. Bootleg Brewery describes itself as 'an oasis in a desert of wine', but there are more of them around than you might expect. Their tasting tray of six beers is a very reasonable $12, and the setting in which to sample - under awnings or at a generous table by the lake - is entirely congenial. While sipping, one can sup on dips, enormous burgers skewered with a steak knife, fish and chips battered with house Pils (left), or daily specials including a curry, or in our case, Mediterranean vegetable risotto.
Speaking of breweries, Little Creatures is a WA export likely to outlast the commodities boom, and its headquarters in Fremantle are, dare I say, an experience not to be missed. Housed in a couple of mills' worth of port-side real estate, the barnlike Little Creatures Dining Hall serves their signature beers straight from the silo. On busy nights, patrons 'register' for a seat (with a number displayed on a snorkel, flipper, etc) and wait for their number to come up on the 'seating blackboard', heralded by a ship's bell.

The woodfired oven pumps out some classy-sounding pizzas such as chorizo, sweet corn and danish fetta, or zucchini, gorgonzola and semi-dried toms. One of their signature dishes is proscuitto-wrapped tiger prawns (right), which serves up eight satisfyingly plump prawns, each blushed with a paper-thin, swallow-and-miss-it piece of proscuitto. Our second choice, marinated kangaroo and tomato chutney, brought another set of moreish, skewered meat to the table.

Returning to Little Creatures in full sunlight a day or two later, we took advantage of their free bike hire offer (also available at their Melbourne site on Brunswick St) and rode these slightly dubious, but sturdy enough, vehicles up the coast to Cottesloe Beach, about as pleasant a way to spend the afternoon as I can imagine.

Daringly, Mad Monk has set up an ambitious space on Fremantle's South Terrace, where they push their own pale ale in direct competition with Little Creatures' founding product. They've purloined a large property on Fremantle's renowned restaurant strip; one renowned for all the touristy, rather than gastronomic reasons. It's more Lygon St, Carlton than Lygon St, East Brunswick, replete with local institution Ginos, which would undoubtedly serve up a fine bowl of pasta, but you could eat at University Cafe back home instead :)

It would, seem, however, that there's only so long SG and I can go without a pizza, so for our last dinner we headed to Sandrino, just across from Ginos, on Market St. Their pizzas feature the thicker-style bases, but the dough is sweet and fresh and they've taken a little bit of time putting together combinations of pizza toppings. On the left we have roast capsicum, eggplant, ricotta and salciccia; on the right is a pizza special with chicken, bacon, pinenuts and aioli hiding under the spinach. At about $18 each, with local wine available from $6 a class, we were quite satisfied with the arrangement.

Market St, for me, is where it's at in Fremantle. Closer to the station are a clutch of reputable cafes, including Long Macc (great name), and the delightful Hush Espresso (32 Market St). With glass frontage, including a hutch for those stopping by for takeaway coffee, this cafe is small enough that you can read the blackboard menu from your table, but big enough that there's space to pay at the counter without elbowing other diners. There are some fine-looking focaccias and muffins on display, and for breakfast diners are spoilt for sweet choices featuring organic bread and brioche.

Pancakes with berry compote are positively lathered, and could probably have done with a good dose of maple syrup to sweeten up the berry tang and lighten the dough load. French toast, with brioche, raspberry jam and mascarpone, was delightfully presented, the 'soldier' pieces allowing for well-controlled bread-to-condiment allocation.

One thing I learnt on this trip interstate may not concur with the current thinking of some of my blogging brethren, but I do now believe that we are protected in Melbourne from the worst of menu-pricing excess. In Dunsborough, a regional town of around 4000, we had the choice of half a dozen restaurants asking $30+ for the majority of main meals (pastas, maybe $25). One restaurant/wine bar had a $44 steak on the menu. Some of the highest echelon restaurants in Melbourne ask that, and I just couldn't trust that I could walk into an unheralded tourist-town restaurant and feel that I would get over four times worth a $10 steak and pot at the Rathdowne Tavern.

Coffee prices are in a similar state. I paid $3.80-$4 for coffee, including at one cafe where a waitperson (who mercifully handed over the barista reins immediately after!) asked 'What's in a cafe latte?' Some of the coffee was very respectable, but I can get great coffee for $2.50 in Melbourne, superb coffee for $2.70 and astonishing coffee for $3.

What I can't do is swim in the ocean in late April...


  1. I really liked the last three reviews. On Flanagan, on the search for a genuine Spanish culinary experience and of course WA. I would happily print that out and hand it to someone if I knew they were going there and wondering what to eat. Better still - might just tell 'em to log on!

    Well played.

    Luke T.

  2. Ta Luke.

    I just scrolled through the WA one and it really could be split into a two-parter - it's practically a travel guide in itself!