2188 Broke Rd Pokolbin, NSW 2320
|Opening hours||Fri-Mon 5.30pm-9pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 4998 6585|
The longer I'm in lockdown, the more bolshie I get about what I want from dining out once we're back in business. When I'm in the country, for instance, I want to know from my meal exactly what part of the country I am in.
Take the Hunter Valley. I know I'm in HunVal on this recent road trip because the grapevines crawl over hill and down dale, Qantas kangaroos pose on hillsides in the morning mist, and roadside stalls spruik mandarins, local honey and pumpkins.
At EXP., the menu is like a Google map, its GPS putting me firmly in Pokolbin. House-made feta is made with milk from the local Luskintyre Dairy; eggs, chicken and honey are from Little Hill Farm; Binnie Beef is from nearby Singleton; Mother Fungus gourmet mushrooms hail from Taree; finger lime from Lovedale; and verjuice from wine-maker Usher Tinkler just down the road.
Another local product, owner/chef Frank Fawkner, is quietly and methodically placing a nasturtium leaf on little bowls of vibrant pumpkin and feta with toasty pumpkin seeds.
Fawkner started cooking locally from the age of 15, went off to work with Tom Aikens in London, then returned to join Troy Rhoades-Brown at Muse in Pokolbin. He and his wife Emma opened EXP. at Oakvale Wines in 2015, moving it to Pokolbin Village last year alongside their (terrific) cafe and bakery, Fawk Foods.
So there are no romantic vineyard views – instead, EXP is internal. The best seats are on a broad expanse of dark granite counter as if at Momofuku Seiobo, facing a small but meticulously laid-out kitchen warmed by the glowing coals of a hibachi grill.
Savvy staff keep things moving, with a six-course tasting menu running to 11 dishes. Of them, a little bowl of calamari and satay sauce is memorable for the lightly pickled biquinho peppers from Newcastle Greens, as crunchy as caper berries.
Next up, the signature duck ham, layered over macadamia butter melting into the holes of a well-leavened sourdough crumpet from an eight-year-old "mother". Love this. It's yeasty and nutty, and the crumpet's dreamily good – even better (sharp intake of breath) than that at Quay or Saint Peter.
With aid from restaurant manager Harrison Plant, whose skills run to well-crafted cocktails and an astute wine list, I go local with a rich-but-crisp 2019 Little Gem Viognier from The Little Wine Company in Pokolbin ($16/$64). Like so many restaurants in wine-growing regions, EXP. gets that reasonable wine mark-ups (eg, twice, not thrice) will help everyone.
Little Wine Co's soft, spicy tempranillo ($70) kicks in with a beautifully executed risotto made with koshihikari rice, infused with a mushroom-based XO sauce and rather overloaded with king oyster mushrooms, fermier washed-rind cheese and cavolo nero.
A chicken dish is more single-minded; thigh meat hiding under a smoky egg yolk, with cauliflower puree forming the "white", fringed with chicken gravy. There's more – beef tartare in crisp little pie-tee cases, and some good beef flank, sweet with black garlic and memorably served with crisped Brussels sprouts.
The clever thing is that every dish is distinct and individual, so there's none of that "haven't I had that already?" degustation fatigue. Then it's wind-down time, with a tangy, buttermilk sorbet, followed by a sensitively cooked honey curd tart, the filling touched with locally made honey and lifted by a silky quenelle of sour cream and smashed frozen honeycomb.
It's a small and lean kitchen, relying on well-rehearsed synchronisation and timing, and the cooking is focused, with strong technique and a spot-on instinct for what goes with what. Yes, there are squeeze bottles for sauces and tweezers for plating, but it doesn't feel fiddly, just precise.
With restaurants such as Muse, Margan, Esca, Bistro Molines and EXP., the Hunter is building its own strong regional style. Proof that ambitious restaurants in the country no longer have to simulate a big city experience in order to succeed. They can do better than that.
Vegetarian Weekly-changing vegan and vegetarian set menus.
Drinks An impressive, contemporary Australian list featuring Hunter Valley's finest, put together by Harrison Plant.
Pro tip Book a seat at the kitchen counter and you'll be ringside to the well-synchronised kitchen action.