Rainy day and fine dining in the Hunter Valley

The problem when planning a country getaway is that I rely on the weather to be cooperative. Sunny and warm is the ideal, if not balmy and mild at the very least.
This is day two of our midweek getaway in the Hunter Valley and this morning we wake up to the worst conditions possible: it is blowing a gale, heavy rains are threatening to flood the whole Hunter region and the bureau of meteorology has issued a severe weather warning for the next 3 days! And to think that we were sipping wine under the verandah and relaxing by the pool yesterday…

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The plan for the day is to book a half day winery tour, maybe fit in a hike somewhere before dining at Muse, one of the Hunter Valley finest restaurants ( highly recommended by my friend Elaine, who sadly had to leave us the day before so she will miss out ).
Of the many tour operators advertising, a lot don’t run midweek and by the time I find someone who does, it is close to lunchtime and we decide it is too late to organise, preferring to do our own thing instead.
We are both famished ( the villa only provides basic tea and coffee facility, no mini bar or small biscuits, though provision of these can be arranged ) and Mr T suggests we walk up to the main building for brunch. Only thing is that it is pouring with rain, we don’t have an umbrella and I can see ourselves stuck in the resort restaurant all afternoon waiting for the weather to clear. So, we fall on plan B and call the local taxi who drives us to the Hunter Valley Gardens Village.
The gardens cover 12 hectares, each featuring a different style ( there is a rose garden, an oriental garden, a sunken garden… ) and linked by 8 kilometres of winding paths. I was really keen to practise on some macro and landscape photography, but well, did I mention the torrential rains? So we retreat undercover and seek shelter into the first cafe I come across.

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Stepping into The Taste of Country is like entering my mother’s kitchen: it is warm, the sturdy wooden furniture gives it a real country feeling ( which is the point ), except mum doesn’t have as many signs on the wall. We both order mugs of coffee and something to warm our bellies up: breakfast with the lot for Mr T and house made minestrone soup for me. The latter comes with a healthy serving of sourdough bread and butter, it is not what I would normally ask for when eating out, but today I am cold and wet, somewhat miserable for missing out on the garden walk, so I am going for comfort food! And it is a bit like a hug in a bowl.

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Since a hike is out of the question, we decide to buy an umbrella and find at least one wine cellar door. Luckily, McGuigan Wines is a short walk around the corner and the staff here welcomes us with open arms, it seems we are the only people coming in this afternoon. The atmosphere is very different to Keith Tulloch’s winery. Instead of soft lounges in white and cream surroundings, we stand in a main hall set up for large group tastings, with museum and cellar door only wines on display and available for tasting, while smaller groups can be accommodated in separate tasting rooms. I like how there is a mix of young and older wines, and taste my way thru to the exclusive Philosophy Cabernet Shiraz 2012 ( a $150 gem! ) ordering a case of Cellar Select Semillon and Shiraz to be home delivered.

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As luck would have it, the Hunter Valley Cheese shop happens to be next door so it is no surprise that we end up with a small collection to take home. The cheese manufacturing was set up over 20 years ago, to complement the wine offerings in the region. Some of the varieties on offer range from Brie to Washed rind and Ash Goat, any other day we would have sampled every one of them, but today, not only I am full from lunch but I also like to think that I know my cheeses well enough to choose on sight. Mr T is not looking forward to have smelly cheese on his plane, hehe!

By mid-afternoon, we’ve had enough of wandering in the rain so we catch a taxi back to the villa and having given up on any kind of hike, settle for a warm tea while catching up with some work ( so much for the romantic getaway! )

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Dinner time can’t come quick enough, as I have been looking forward to it all day. Muse Restaurant is considered a Hunter Valley icon. It is the brain child of local chef Troy Rhoades-Brown and his wife Megan. Their aim is to source the best local produce and showcase the ingredients, in a contemporary Australian style and judging by the number of awards won ( 2 chef hats from the SMH Good food Guide amongst them ), it has become a dining experience not to be missed.

Muse is located on the grounds of Hungerford Hills winery, a short distance from the resort. Our initial plan was to walk and work up an appetite, but relentless rain has meant that we’ve once again had to call on the taxi service ( we must be their best customers today!) Our booking is for 6.30pm and we arrive a few minutes earlier, not wanting to miss a minute of the upcoming experience.

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Another couple must have had the same idea as they are already waiting in the lobby ahead of us. As we are all asked to wait a few minutes, I spy behind the window, and watch the team being briefed by the chef. I can’t hear anything, but I am always fascinated to watch the serious faces, focused on the job ahead. It is as if the place is run with military precision. When the team is finally ready, we are led to our table in the order of which we have arrived and ours is placed near the open kitchen where I have full view of the staff, cooking away in a very calm fashion, none of these Masterchef style antics to distract diners…

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The waitress hands us the menu, which outlines the 4 course dinner we’re about to enjoy tonight.
That doesn’t mention the extras to come.

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Upon seating, we are greeted with a serving of sourdough bread and whipped macadamia butter.

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Then, comes a small plate of savoury palmiers with rolls of kolhrabi filled with some kind of mousse and topped with puffed rice.

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And a labne ball wrapped in a delicate “net “ of milk skin. You have to excuse my vagueness here, as much as I tried to remember the waitress’ every detailed description of the dishes, there is so much going on on the plate all I can say is that these amuse-bouches are sensational and I can’t wait for the actual meal to start.

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First course is a carrot with cured pork jowl, goats curd, Paxton honeycomb, ginger and blackberry: the carrot is tender, draped with a wafer thin slice of pork jowl. Mixed with the creaminess of the goat curd, the crunch of the honeycomb and the slight spice of the ginger, it is a lovely start. And we love the theatrics of the smokey dry ice whey which the waitress poured over the dish at the table.

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Second course for me is potato and black lip abalone, with cured yolk, mushroom in a chicken soy broth. My last experience with abalone was a disappointing one in Tasmania a few months ago, so I was keen to try again. Wow, this dish is playing tricks on my senses: the potato is turned into thin strands like angel hair pasta, it is topped with creamy cured egg yolk and shaved like pieces of abalone. Not chewy at all, and a very subtle hint of mushroom powder. It is delicious and I reluctantly agree to share with Mr T who is handing me his plate.

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His choice is king fish, with green tomato, green chili, citrus koshu, abruga caviar and shiso. It is like a tartare, with all raw ingredients. It is a very pretty dish, shaped in a circle, with the fish, tomato and chili mixed with japanese wine koshu, peppered with sevruga and shiso leaves. It is refreshing and light, I am thinking of stealing the idea for our next garden party feast.

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Third course is the mains, and both of us eschewed the wagyu beef, reportedly a signature dish, preferring to opt for the quail dish for Mr T and the Murray cod for me.
Mr T’s redgate farm quail comes with a plum, buckwheat noodles, umeboshi ( japanese salt plums ) and wild garlic capers. It is quite a tasty dish, with a definite umami flavor, and Mr T appreciates the deboned quail.

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I love the murray cod, served with heirloom tomato, wombok, saltbush, katsuobushi ( dried smoked bonito flakes ) and kimchi dressing. It is such a different way to serve the fish: tangy, salty, spicy and moist. Once again, I make a mental note to try this at home.

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We opt out of the optional cheese course, which doesn’t preclude us from being served a perfect palate cleanser of grapefruit sorbet.

Finally dessert time comes and, honestly these must be the best desserts we have had in a long time.

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The Muse coconut is a masterpiece of all things coconut: with no description on the menu, we are left to guess as we taste: the coconut “shell” is made of thin chocolate, filled with coconut mousse as light as air and coconut jelly inside. the whole thing sits on top of coconut “soil”, coco nibs and toasted coconut flakes. The only component I can see myself trying at home would be the toasted coconut flakes, the rest is so refined and precise, I tell Mr T I would fly back in a heartbeat just for this dessert.

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The other dessert choice is no less impressive: white chocolate and wattleseed set cream, hazelnut, banana sorbet and fermented golden passionfruit sit so pretty on the plate and taste divine. It is not overly sweet, which I like and taste like the tropics on a plate.

The 4 course dinner will set you back $105 per person, which is not cheap but considering that the whole experience lasts at least 3 hours and includes such beautifully crafted dishes, it is worth every dollar. Wine pairing is offered for an extra $10 per glass, though I didn’t avail myself to it, preferring to choose from their very extensive wine list and tasting local gems like Hungerford Hill Dalliance Sparkling, Andrew Thomas Braemore Semillon and Usher Tinkler Reserve Shiraz.

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Finally, when it is time to leave, we ask for a taxi to be called. As we wait, we are kindly offered a glass of liqueur which is a nice touch, especially as it appears that our taxi is missing in action. We find out that a few couples ahead of us called ubers who came from Newscastle, that’s how busy cabs are tonight! After nearly an hour of waiting, our waitress apologizes profusely for the missing cab ( she’s so sweet, it is not her fault after all ) and after enquiring where we are staying, offers to have a staff member take us back to the resort. Admittedly it is only a 5mn drive to the Hunter Valley Crown Plaza, but in this still abysmal weather, we feel like VIPs enjoying door to door service in the SUV.

I collapse into bed, feeling very full and content, hoping the weather cooperates for our return flight the next morning. Unbeknownst to Mr T I have already negotiated with the resort a possible extended stay in case of bad weather, however we both have different ideas as far as inclement weather goes and where I see grey, low rain clouds he looks for blue gaps to fly thru. So, at the first sign of blue sky, we’re back in the air, bound for home and dreaming of our next visit .

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