Photo: Fiona Morris
Hello blossom! It's always springier in the mountains than anywhere else in the state, and there's very good reason to suspect that Lochiel House is the springiest place in the mountains.
The small cottage seems happy to have survived the grey monotones of winter and to be wreathed in the yellows, greens and pinks of spring. Every dish seems designed directly to welcome the growing, blossoming, blooming, budding season.
So while a steamed dashi custard with a jewel-like scallop tartare and bosky smoked eel might be generously covered in slivers of the last of the local Millthorpe winter truffles, it also carries a harbinger of spring in the shape of a little branch of ornamental pear in full blossom; its exquisite Japanese aesthetic grounding the delicate chawan mushi in its porcelain cup. It's a typical ploy by owners and chefs Anthony Milroy and Monique Maul, who seem very much more embedded in the landscape around them than many a city-bound chef.
The move to the Hawkesbury and this 186-year old former lodging house 10 years ago was a deliberate attempt to remove themselves from the artifice of big-city life. Having trained at top-flight Sydney restaurants such as Rockpool, Wokpool and Bayswater Brasserie, the pair spent two years cooking in a Canadian ashram working with an organic vegie garden and a philosophy of using only ingredients grown within a two-mile radius; something that continues to shape their cooking today.
It all sounds a bit hippie-trippy and earth-mothery. Certainly, the modest interior of the cottage, with its weatherboard walls, open fireplaces and displays of house-made preserves, adds a certain homey quality to the dining experience.
But the food couldn't be more sophisticated if it tried. That this is a kitchen prepared to go the extra yard is clear from the minute a basket of puffy, freshly baked potato bread lands on the table, accompanied by little bowl of house-marinated, late-picked Rosnay olives from Canowindra and a cube of house-churned butter blended with local oil and topped with rosemary salt.
It's also a kitchen in tune with modern cooking technology. A velvety hand-chopped, dry-aged, grass-fed beef tartare comes with a slow-cooked 61-degree egg yolk and a crinkly sail of a rice and mushroom crisp, as well as more of that irresistible truffle.
Maul is a natural on the floor, with just the right blend of country hospitality and informed opinion. She's good with the wine, ready to suggest a wine match from the solid, predominantly Australian list, which leads me to the 2009 Domaine Lucci ($12 a glass), a spicy, Rhone-ish red from Adelaide Hills biodynamic winemaker Anton Van Klopper.
On this weekend lunch menu, there's a spectacular pork belly dish with carrot puree and pickled pear, but the hickory-smoked lamb rump from Moorlands in Canberra seems like such a gambolling-lambikins-in-spring thing to order that I have no choice. It's simply presented; the rested, pinkly centred, sweetly flavoured meat piled high on silky potato puree and a forest of crunchily crusted cauliflower gratin.
The more work that is done by the kitchen, the simpler the food appears on the plate. Rainbow trout has been boned and rolled, wrapped in prosciutto, sauced with a buttery broth dotted with avruga, and prettied up with warrigal greens, nasturtium leaves, baby artichoke hearts and non-watery braised leeks that give an oniony freshness and sweetness. It's a smart combination of fresh, gentle, natural tastes and textures.
Thinking locally, there's no going past the chocolate dessert, made with the excellent Zokoko chocolate from nearby Penrith. It's a delicious thing, with its crisp biscuit shell cracking open to reveal a warm and gooey mousse with a nutty, salted caramel hit, topped with chocolate twiglets. The shavings of brazil nut throw it off course for me, however. It's strange that something so natural can taste so waxy and artificial.
Lochiel House has been named regional restaurant of the year in the 2012 SMH Good Food Guide, published yesterday. It fuses the comfort, generosity and locavore ethos you want in a country restaurant with the high skills, service levels and thoughtful, provocative food usually only a big city can support.
After 10 years, it has proved to be not only a sustainable restaurant, but a sustainable business. Lochiel House, long may you last.
Address 1259 Bells Line of Road, Kurrajong Heights. Phone 4567 7754, lochielhouse.com.au.
Open Lunch, Fri-Sun; dinner, Fri-Sat.
Licensed Yes and BYO (corkage
$15 a bottle).
Cost Two-course menu $64 a person, three courses $81 a person ($72 and $89 on Sundays).
- 4567 7754
- Prices - 2-course menu, $64pp; 3 courses, $81pp ($72 and $89 on Sundays, 2-course menu, $64pp; 3 courses, $81pp ($72 and $89 on Sundays
- Opening Hours - lunch, Fri-Sun; dinner, Fri-Sat
- Author - Terry Durack