Over the past year, the Hunter Valley has become a second home of sorts. We’ve fallen in love with the country town charm and try to schedule as many weekends away as possible. Leading to our fourth visit in less than 6 months!
Our first stop was at Piggs Peake winery, known for their big robust reds. We were so taken with their 2016 Shiraz after having it in a Syd Italian restaurant that we specifically made a mental note for a stop in. Picking up a bottle of 2015 house of sticks shiraz & 2015 sucking pig shiraz.
We were particularly excited due to our stay at the gorgeous Kirkton Park Hunter Valley (formerly the Sebel). For old world charm with all the mod cons, you really won’t be disappointed. A recent multi-million refurbishment has paid off. There are gorgeous spots to be found all over the property, romantic hidey holes, a veggie garden, a gorgeous swimming pool (which was perfect for our Lady Gaga music video re-interpretation…) Don’t ask…!!
During our 3 day stay, we saw one wedding and one proposal and I can see why. it definitely inspires the inner romantic.
We began our weekend away with dinner in the main restaurant Locavore. With its emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, some of which is grown on the property. The inside dining room is rather impressive, with dark blue furnishings, deep wooden floors and white timber shutters. Instantly evoking a romantic environment and not at all like a ‘hotel restaurant’. Service was friendly and unobtrusive, we settled in with a glass of bubbly as we decided between the a la carte or the tasting menu. With a weekend of intense eating on the cards we settled on the 3 Course tasting menu at $75 p.p. Perfectly reasonable for the quality and serving sizes.
Warm dark rolls with seeds and a pat of butter hit the table alongside a small starter, Olive & Tomato toast bites, kicking the palate into overdrive.
Instantly catching our eyes, Alex’s entree – Pan Seared Scallops – w/ cauliflower puree, asparagus, pea dust & crispy prosciutto. Sweet, juicy and plump. Perhaps one of the better scallop dishes I’ve ever had. There was a noticeable outer sear which gave way to soft well-seasoned bite. The cauliflower puree tying the bite together with the salty prosciutto.
I went with the Semolina Corn Gnocchi – w/corn custard, charred corn kernels & saffron popcorn. Not quite what I was expecting when it was set before me. Two large dumpling like gnocchi, buttery and instantly melting in the mouth. The juxtaposition of the charred corn, the caramelised custard & crunchy popcorn is something that will stay with me for some time. Conceptually out of the box and completely unexpected.
Moving on to mains, I’ll admit, we both fought over the Eye Fillet – w/celeriac puree & mushroom fricassee. Alex ultimately won but secretly I think I had the better dish. None the less, the beef was cooked beautifully but there was a slight chewiness one would not expect from an Eye Fillet. The rich thick jus was a perfect accompaniment but what sold the dish was that mushroom fricassee.
I had the Poached Chicken Breast -w/ fondant potatoes, rolled chicken thigh, grated macadamia & whiskey apricot puree. The thigh ballotine was full of concentrated umami chicken flavour. The chicken so tender you could slice with ease. The puree giving an accented sweetness. Also served alongside gorgeous Roast potatoes and Rocket & Quinoa Salad.
And our favourite part of most meals, dessert. Alex a sucker for a good Brûlée -w/lemongrass, kaffir lime, toffee & gel. We were torn on this one, Alex feeling it wasn’t entirely consistent with the lemongrass & kaffir overpowering in certain parts. I really enjoyed the varying textures within the brûlée, the gel alongside the biscuit – all tied together by the signifier selling point of a great brûlée, the sugar top. The flavour combination was so interesting I just couldn’t stop eating it.
And finally, The Dark Chocolate Fondant -w/honeycomb, choc soil, sweet potato crisps & vanilla ice-cream. Now, this is how you finish a meal. There was a lengthy wait for desserts, we were told this was due to the timing of the fondant but sadly our lava cake was not too be. Having set by the time we cracked it open. That aside, this was my dream dessert. Surprisingly my favourite element was the salty moreish sweet potato crisps.
We were both impressed with the food and can see why its reception in the Hunter has been so positive.
Making good use of the hotel’s amenities, I popped in for a quick gym sesh while Alex caught up on some much-needed beauty sleep. We then made our way over to the Breakfast buffet, also partly held in Locavore. $25 gives you access to the continental breakfast but it’s worth spending the $35 for the full buffet breakfast. We made quite the spectacle of ourselves as we prepared our breakfast spread. Full of the usual hot favourites – scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, roasted tomatoes, mushrooms and chipolatas. Fresh fruit, pastry, cheese, ham, waffle, fruit juice and some much needed Nespresso. One of the better breakfast buffets we’ve had.
And then began our food and drink onslaught. We were keen to explore more of Broke. Starting at Krinklewood Winery, taking the stuffiness out of a cellar door tasting and opting instead to sit outside in the French provincial style courtyard. The word picturesque became rather redundant, everywhere you turned was a photo opportunity.
Mid tasting we were joined by a family of peacocks, majestic and a bit of a showboater (let’s be honest). Peta our host took us on a journey through Krinklewood’s impressive biodynamic wine catalogue. We recommend really making an occasion of the tasting by springing for the cheeseboard. $25 gets you 3 Udder Delights cheese (SA). A brie, cheddar and blue. Served alongside crackers, cornichons, local olives and a pear & fennel chutney. I came away with a gorgeous 2016 Chardonnay, surprising considering I’m not a white drinker.
Margan Winery has a special place in our heart due to one little special drop we’ve fallen in love with. The 2011 Ripasso, quite possibly the best $75 you’ll ever spend! The restaurant is highly lauded in the Hunter and we were thrilled to finally dine at the chef hatted restaurant. A quick wine tasting gave us more of an insight into their diverse collection of wines, we do enjoy their wine variants. After a tour of the beautiful gardens (of which the produce is used in the restaurant) we headed in for a leisurely lunch. The 5-course tasting menu is exceptional value for $100 pp. For those non designated drivers, 5 matching wines are an additional $45.
Before moving on to the food, the setting is just so darn picturesque. Service was professional and unobtrusive, expertly guiding us throughout the meal. A series of ‘snacks’ were brought out to get the appetite raring. House-grown plump green olives & parmesan chunks with grisini were a delight, the parmesan having quite a sharp bite and encapsulating spring in a few bites was the Peas & Ricotta on a housemade cracker.
Starting on a lighter note, the Warm Salmon -w/creme fraiche, beetroot, horseradish & puffed rice was a delicate interplay between the sour creme fraiche, earthy sweetness of the beetroot and the subtle smokiness of the salmon.
One of my favourite courses was the Crispy Margan Hen’s Egg -w/ asparagus, snap peas & spinach. A show-stopping dish, with the layers of kataifi pastry adding an exceptional varying interest in texture. The egg once cracked open revealed an oozing bright orange yolk. This dish truly showed off the gardens exceptional produce.
Roast Duck Breast -w/confit duck leg, pumpkin, kumquat & pistachio was sheer perfection, a slight citrus tang, the pumpkin in various formats gave an interesting depth of flavour alongside the pistachio. The duck was cooked beautifully, particularly the confit leg, virtually melting in the mouth.
The last of the savoury was the Jack’s Creek Rump Cap -w/ braised brisket, leek potato & onion. Expertly cooked medium rare with a caramelised outer char. Smooth buttery mash. The brisket lardons were a highlight, adding a concentrated salty hit and tying it all together the subtle warmth from the mixed spring onions & leek.
And finishing quite possibly on my favourite dish of all. Parsnip, caramelised white chocolate & buckwheat. On paper, this didn’t have me too excited but after the first bite, it was love. Essentially a parsnip ‘carrot cake’ with a multitude of textures, temperatures and depths of flavour. The puffed buckwheat giving a real toasted note but it was the caramelised white chocolate that stole the show for me.
Margan is one of our favourites in the Hunter so we do recommend making it a point to check them out, just don’t forget the Ripasso!
Something we were surprised to see offered was a wine and chocolate tasting at Keith Tulloch Winery in conjunction with Cocoa Nib Chocolate. $15 pp pairs 4 chocolate truffles with wine. This really is a multi-faceted sensory experience and perhaps like most people, we were surprised by how well the pairing went. Particularly the whites with the dark chocolate. Our favourite combination was the 2017 Perdiem off-dry Semillon with the Crispy Lemon Praline.
And not to be missed is Balloon Aloft’s Hunter Valley Experience. Our sunrise hot air balloon was an exhilarating one hour ride, soaring up to 2000ft over Polkobin. My fear of heights does keep me away from the more ‘risky’ adventures but the opportunity to pass on this experience would have left me with a major case of FOMO and I’m so glad I did it. Such a peaceful and serene opportunity.
The current online package goes for $269 and that includes transportation from Petersons Champagne house to the launch site, transportation back and breakfast at Cuvee, Petersons. With the best of both worlds, sweet and savoury, the Bubbly Breakfast & Sticky Date Pancakes going down a treat after our thrilling Balloon ride.
Pepper Tree Wines has been one of our families favourites whenever we make family trips to the Hunter. We weren’t as familiar with their wines despite our many visits as we were always too young to fully appreciate them (i.e sample legally). It’s worth the trip alone for a sticky beak at the surrounding grounds. Pepper Tree are one of the behemoth wineries in the Hunter, producing more than 40,000 cases per year. From our mostly untrained and uncivilised punter viewpoint, they specialise in bold, full-bodied varietals. We enjoyed the Calcare Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 & the Vin De Vie Muscat. We also recommend grabbing a coffee from Cotango Coffee and lounging about, on a beautiful day there really isn’t anything better to do.
The joys of frequent trips are the new discoveries each and every time. Our last visit it was Usher Tinkler, this time around it was Dark Horse Vineyard, Hunter Valley’s first equestrian inspired cellar door. We had a great chat with co-owner Olivia about the boutique wineries inception and future plans for a polo event in the near future.
It was like stumbling upon Ralph Lauren’s private house, everything was so beautifully curated and you can quite easily come away spending a small fortune unintentionally. I left with a bottle of the 2017 Doni & Doll Semillon.
And of course, no trip to the Hunter is complete without a small detour through Newcastle for burgers. Our go-to is usually Newy Burger Co but I was interested to check out the new guys Rascal. They have a pretty heavy hitting team behind the scenes and in the kitchen so I was expecting big things and spoiler alert, the burgers are pretty good. Between Alex and myself, we shared the Cheeseburger w/ crispy bacon & jalapenos $13.90, everything you want in a great cheeseburger. For my first foray, I probably should have skipped the jalapenos because that overpowered everything. The beef was tasty, well seasoned with a great char. The Marty McFly $12 is a stellar fried chicken burger, big points for cheese coming as standard (seems to be a glaring omission for chicken burgers). And finally, the Tater Tots w/rascal salt $5 – tots are life! There were some service issues with some of the young staff but we’ll put it down to a one-off experience.
The Hunter Valley is a treasure trove of fantastic wineries and restaurants. We’re constantly introduced to new discoveries every time we visit and we can’t wait till our next trip.
Photos by Alex
*For Food’s Sake visited Hunter Valley as guests of Kirkton Park and a collaboration with House of Airlie PR.