Spirit House – Yandina, QLD

SH RestaurantThis is not my first visit to this exceptional establishment, it’s my tenth. But it’s my first since I started writing and my nod to its excellence is well overdue. Set on a peaceful lake amongst a lush tropical garden, Spirit House is not just a restaurant – it’s an experience. The exceptional presentation of exquisite contemporary Thai food, served with subtle elegance in the most tranquil of settings makes it so.

SH Soft Shell CrabI can recommend pretty much everything on the menu, but today I start with the tamarind chilli soft shell crab with minced pork and Asian celery. I love tamarind and its sourness in this dish is in perfect harmony with the hit of chilli. The light crunch of the shell gives way to delicate, sweet flesh and finishes well with the dusting of nuts.

SH Pork BellyMy husband has the pork belly to start and it’s as good as it always is (yes, he almost always orders it). The rich crispy skin, sweet citrus caramel sauce colludes with the ginger and mint salad to bring him back for more every time.

SH Massuman Beef CurryThe massaman seared lamb loin is nice and spicy – delicate heat comes through the sweetly caramelised sauce. The Kipler wafers are beautifully light and crisp and the pickled garlic adds a nice contemporary twist.

SH Green Pork CurryThe star dish today is the green curry pork loin. Spice crusted and served with (yes, more) pork crackling, shavings of apple, Thai celery and shredded kaffir lime leaves, it’s fresh, punchy and incredibly moreish.

Over the years I have had the very great pleasure of not only eating at Spirit House, but also attending their cooking school. It’s great fun, really hands on and both Kelly Lord and Annette Fear are great teachers. I have yet to join them on one of their culinary tours to Thailand and Vietnam but look forward to it immensely.2012 July 604

Wild Rocket at Misty’s – Montville, QLD

Narrows CottageOver the years my husband and I have had many happy retreats to the Sunshine Coast, more often than not staying in Noosaville. This time, hanging out for a last little snap of winter, a bit of green and a dash of red, we headed to Montville – a little inland from Noosa and set between Baroon Pocket Dam and the coast, abundant with rain forests and delightful crafty village shops.

Narrows RainforestWe found just the sanctuary we had a yen for at Narrows Escape. A small retreat run by the most delightful people who seem to anticipate everything you might need before you even consider it. Each wooden cottage is nestled amongst the trees, some alongside a little creek and all with a hammock, spa bath and fireplace.

Narrows Escape Breakfast HamperFor once it was nice not to have to pack any provisions, as included in the rate was an impressive breakfast hamper laden with eggs, bacon, fruit, spreads, orange juice, milk and chocolates; a welcome bottle of bubbly and a cheese platter. Every morning we had warm, freshly baked croissants delivered to the cottage with the newspaper on Sunday, and if we had chosen not to venture out we could have had a two-course meal cooked and served to us in our cottage.

Misty's ButtonsWe spent the first morning walking up an appetite in the rain forest and then settled in at Wild Rocket @ Misty’s for a lazy, lengthy lunch over a bottle of wine. Situated in one of the most historic buildings in Montville, but serving modern bistro-style food, Wild Rocket offers great value with a side of charm.

Misty's BurgerThe burger is a hunger buster and loaded with freshness and zing. A proper homemade beef patty, perfectly cooked and juicy, with smoked chilli relish and pickled cucumber a perfect complement to the bacon and hand-cut fries.

Misty's Thai Beef SaladThe Thai beef salad is just as well balanced and fresh. So good in fact that we returned the next day and switched choices.

If you haven’t been to the hinterland before, it’s a great place to the get the cement out of your system. One of the most beautiful walks is to be found at Kondalilla Falls and an easy half hour drive takes you to the Eumundi market on a Sunday. A little way away, tucked into a surprising sanctuary in Yandina, is my favourite Thai restaurant – Spirit House.

L’etoile – Paddington, Sydney

Le'Toile WindowWhy did I wait so long for this exquisite experience? From the lovely little walk along Glenmore Road to the quaint old terraced houses and the rare boutiques surrounding L’etoile – I’m immersed in the European finesse which the French so rightfully lay claim to.

I am greeted at the door by the thoroughly French and fabulously attentive Didier. He delights me with a little window table in the corner … perfect for the lone diner and better yet for one with a penchant for observing life. As I sit down the sun breaks through the clouds and glistens on the drizzle.

I am the first diner to arrive and so have the restaurantScallop Sausage with Crustacean Bisque – and Didier – all to myself. I order a glass of Champagne and the Boudin de St Jacques to start – the silkiest scallop sausage with crustacean bisque. The sausage is unimaginably light but given a balanced depth with the fullness of flavour from the bisque. The roe pops delicately in my mouth and for the first time I get what all the fuss is about.

Le'Toile TroutI’m tempted by everything on the “plats principaux”, but settle on the rainbow trout fillet with Grenobloise sauce. Did you know there are 20 variations of butter sauces in French cuisine? One for each of the proteins or vegetables they accompany. This one is a butter, parsley, lemon, caper and crouton sauce. The trout is pan-fried with crispy skin and the most delicate flesh and so I’m pleased the butter is gorgeously nutted, served with adequate restraint and cut through sufficiently with the lemon. I also love the little pop from the capers and the peppery finish of the watercress.

Le'Toile Citroen TartBy now it’s started raining again and I decide there’s nothing for it but a little coffee and dessert. Didier ably predicts my choice (Crème Brulee – of course), but gently steers me towards the citron tart instead. I’m not sorry.

A gorgeous champagne and lychee gremolata cleanses my palate and prepares me for the sweetness to follow. The lemon tart is smooth, creamy and um … tart. The meringue reminds of me of marshmallows melted over a fire and the pastry is flaky decadence. Again, it’s all about balance and the raspberry and rhubarb sorbet is just the ying for the yang.

The Best of my Best in Brisbane

I was asked tonight which are my favourite restaurants in Brisbane. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked and I realise that while I have only been writing this blog for a few months, I have been indulging in my food passion for far longer. So here is a very short, very sweet mention of a few of my favourites ….

Aria – Eagle St Pier, Brisbane

Matt Moran is unashamedly my foodie hero. He’s unpretentious, lives up to his food ideals (sustainability, waste not, paddock to plate) and is one of the nicest people I’ve met. An evening at Aria can be eye-wateringly expensive but is worth every hard-earned penny. It’s easy to tell when food is farmed, prepared and presented with unwavering dedication and care, but it’s not always easy to find. And you get what you pay for. I promise.

The Stokehouse – Southbank, Brisbane

Hot on Aria’s heels. This is a great destination for a summer’s lunch on the river. Go casual with the bar menu and a bottle of wine on the deck, or relish the very fine and beautifully presented, magnificently balanced dining in the restaurant.

Alchemy – Brisbane City

Heston-lovers this one’s for you. Gastronomy, liquid nitrogen and foams delight.

L’Aquitaine – Southbank, Brisbane

Slightly less pretentious, more modern French dining. Great value, fantastic service and on the river. Perfect for a pre-show dinner if you’re heading off to QPAC.

La Vie – Southbank, Brisbane

Also perfect for the pre-show dinner; this Italian gem is a must. Casual dining, lively (aka a little noisy) but great food. Don’t miss the arancini if it’s on the menu.

Mariosarti – Toowong, Brisbane

This was one of my very first Australian restaurant dining experiences and the first one I enjoyed. If you live in the area it’s worth a go. Contemporary Italian.

The Fat Noodle – Treasury Casino, Brisbane City

Blog coming soon, but if you’re after pho this is where it’s at. Luke Nguyen is the master of Vietnamese.

Oyama – Fortitude Valley, Brisbane

Traditional Japanese and outstanding. Mind you don’t confuse the wasabi for avo though (novice mistake – ahem).

Mons Sabai – Cannon Hill, Brisbane

My favourite Thai restaurant in Brisbane. Curry pastes are house-made and everything on the menu is good (yes, we’ve tried most of it). My favourites though – prawn and grapefruit salad (sometimes on the specials menu) and the red duck curry.

Kingsleys – Eagle St Pier, Brisbane

Contemporary Australian steakhouse. The best soft shell crab and you can’t beat the steaks. You might need to be a little patient though.

Didier – if you read this you’ll have to write to me with some suggestions for the Gold Coast 🙂

Look out for my breakfast guide … coming soon.

Gerard’s Bistro – Fortitude Valley, Brisbane

130928 Gerard's Bistro CharcuterieRecently rated one of Brisbane’s best restaurants by Gourmet Traveller, Gerard’s has been on my bucket list for a while. The attraction? Modern middle-eastern cuisine served share-style, intriguing décor and an impressive wine list. It’s also conveniently located if you’re heading towards the Valley for a show – walking distance from The Tivoli and the Judith Wright theatre and close enough to the Powerhouse for a quick pre-show dinner if you’re driving.

The menu is diverse and thoroughly contemporary – house-made smallgoods and pickled accompaniments abound and its clear smoking is a technique favoured by chef Ben Williamson.130928 Gerard's Bistro charcuterie 3

The charcuterie board with Lebanese pickles goes so much further than the usual well-sourced and assembled offering. The house-made chorizo paste has a fabulous kick and works really well with the pickles. The liver pate packs remarkable flavour for its feather-light smoothness and finishes beautifully atop the seeded crispbread. The prosciutto is delicately smoked but watch those pickled chillies.

130928 Gerard's Bistro Suckling Pig PSSuckling pig with pear, walnuts and Jerusalem artichokes is the signature dish and it doesn’t disappoint.

The Pategonian toothfish with mussels and jamon is perfectly complemented by lentils shot through with a hint of lemon.130928 Gerard's Bistro Pategonian Toothfish 1 Both dishes work beautifully with sides of smoked potatoes with tahini, sumac and nigella; and roasted beetroot with shankleish, barberries, hazelnuts and lemon balm. Also on the menu and fantastic with our selection is the Stoneleigh Pinot Gris.

With all this we left no space for sweets, but will happily return to finish the experience.

A side note – if you’re a real foodie with a penchant for collecting recipe books, pop into Scrumptious Reads, just diagonally across from the entrance to Gerard’s. It’s open late and is the perfect appetising distraction on the way in if you’re a little early for your booking.

Sake – Eagle St Pier, Brisbane

SakeThe cherry blossoms are, well – blossoming – in Brisbane and there seems no better time to pop into Sake for dinner.

Everything about this restaurant is well-considered perfection. It’s location at Eagle Street Pier, the demure, perfectly lit interior, adept service, homage to the old and fusion with the new. The menu is vast and proffers a good nod to healthy appetites as well as the more adventurous variety-lovers amongst us.

The miso soup is Japan in a bow130914 Sake Popcorn Prawnsl. Not as authentic, but too interesting to ignore and the perfect appetiser, the popcorn shrimp crackles in your mouth just before doing a little jig with the spicy sauce and melting.

130914 Sake Pork BellyThe panko-fried pork belly is a cracking little nod to Australia, but fused to Japan with the miso mustard and given a modern twist with fermented cabbage.

130914 Sake BeefMeatlovers with a healthy appetite will be more than happy with the generous soy beef stirfry.

The galantine of quail with yama-gobo and shitake mushrooms is utterly gorgeous on the plate. On the palate an orange soy glaze balances sweet and salty with a hit of sour from the pickled golden beetroot. 130914 Sake QuailThis is for the variety-lover, not the hungry diner, but if they have the cherry chocolate tart on special you won’t be sorry you left a little space.

130914 Sake Chocolate Cherry Tart

Day 6 – Margaret River

Hay Shed Hill EntranceAll good things and so on ….Sadly, it’s our last day. Typically, the sun cracks through the clouds and strobes gold through the trees. We’re off to Hay Shed Hill for breakfast. If you want something different this is where it’s at.

Hay Shed Hill Building

The café offers local produce with a distinctively Middle Eastern bent. I order the shakshuka – my first – and I’m hooked. Eggs cracked into a spicy tomato base, baked with chorizo and served with sesame flatbread. A good chilli hit so not for the spice-shy.

Shakshuka

Stomachs lined, we face up for our last wine-tasting in the region and we’re not disappointed. With many outstanding Chardonnays and Cab Savs under our belts, it’s the 2011 Shiraz Tempranillo that grabs me. 86% Tempranillo, 14% Cab Sav, nice and spicy with complex tannins. The 2009 Block 8 Cab Franc is deliciously fragrant and a great way to end.

We send off our week’s stash and head for a sweet finish to the Margaret River Chocolate Company. Chocaholics be warned. I have never seen so much chocolate in one place in my life. Let alone so many interesting versions of it.Margaret River Chocolate

No tasting notes here – try everything. It’s all melt-in-your mouth, roll your eyes, bob your head, gushingly, embarrassingly perfect.

We pop in at the Silk Road and then hit the road towards Perth, travelling via Cottlesloe beach, where we stop for a lazy sunset drink at Indiana, stroll along the beach and wistfully yen for just one more day.

Day 5 – Margaret River

Leeuwin EntranceThe big wet is showing no interest in dissipating and we choose this day to dedicate almost entirely to one of the greats – Leeuwin Estate. We start with a wine tour. Not much happening at this time of the year but still interesting and the personal attention and private wine-tasting that follows makes it all the more worthwhile. We work our way through almost the entire offering, from the Prelude range through the Art Series. Leeuwin Art 1There’s probably nothing I can say that James Halliday and other wine boffs haven’t already said. All I can say is if you visit Margaret River and there is a winery you should not miss, this is it. This is premium wine and testament to Leeuwin’s heritage.

Leeuwin GardeNow so soggy outside we can barely see the Karri trees surrounding the property, our happy haze draws us to the crackling hearth and the promise of food.

Leeuwin Menu Pic

With my usual lack of restraint and want for trying everything, I start with the Art Series tasting plate. Oysters paired with the 2012 Riesling; Thai curry scallops with the 2012 Sav Blanc; d’Argental Lingot with cherry gel and candied walnuts is heaven with the 2012 Chardonnay; although the confit duck loses its legs a little against the 2008 Cab Sav.

Leeuwin Spanner Crab SouffleNot wanting to make a pig of myself but unable to resist crab or soufflé, I order this entrée instead of a main and Leeuwin Roast Artichokespair it with a side of roast artichokes and a glass of the Art Series Chardonnay. A happy pairing albeit with a slightly saggy soufflé.

Roger has the Rangers Valley scotch fillet with truffle fondant and horseradish bearnaise. He’s not a fan of gristle so this disappoints him, but the truffle fondant and béarnaise is sublime.Leeuwin Steak

On our way home, we pop into Watershed, impressive though a little exposed on a blustery day. We’ve heard the owner is dabbling in Manjimup truffles and vow to return to the vast restaurant, but for today I’m here to pay homage to their Senses Shiraz. A year ago I was lucky enough to pick up a few bottles of their 2010 vintage – outstanding and deserving of the Visy Gold award it picked up. Not as blown away by the current offering but one to watch. In the meantime, if you’re a fan, try the Zinfandel. Not many of them around (only five last time I checked) and this is a goodie.Watershed 2

Day 4 – Margaret River

Busselton JettyA glance at the forecast tells us today is likely to be the fairest of the rest, so we bolt up to Busselton. Foiled again. Stormy seas have muddied visibility and the aquarium at the jetty is closed.

So instead we head up to Cape Naturaliste, stopping at Dunsborough to see Christian Fletchers’ photo gallery. Breathtaking talent and well worth the detour. En route to Cape Naturaliste we stop to take pictures of the millions of lilies scattered across the fields. I’m told they’re noxious here but I still love them.

At Cape Naturaliste we pay the nice lady for passes to the lighthouse and then wish we hadn’t. It’s small (much smaller than Cape Leeuwin) and sealed in with an eight foot fence that precludes any decent shots of the view.

Wise WinesIn disdain, we consider our options and make the best of logical decisions. We head to the next winery. Wise Wines is just off the road heading back from the lighthouse. The view from the cellar door and restaurant is spectacular with a vista from the lush valley to the ocean beyond. The wines complete the experience.Wise Wines View The Pinot Grigio would make an Italian proud and the 2010 Lot 80 Cab Sav is stupendous. The finesse of the tannin curls delicately around cassis, vanilla and settles on a wisp of smokiness.

We take the scenic ocean drive to Meelup Bay. If you see no other beach in WA, see this one.Beach Meelup

Wills Domain ViewJust about everyone I know who has been to Margaret River has recommended our next stop and with good reason. Will’s Domain is perched atop a valley and is a feast for both scenery junkies and fusion foodies.Wills Domain Brisket Their eclectic menu is bold, complex and creative. I opt for the Ningaloo wagyu brisket with pickled walnuts, quince, kale and parsnip – served on a platter. My husband has the “Big Red” pork collar and belly with smoked shallots, dumplings and pear – served as a casserole.

A chilly mist rolls up the hill and snaps at our ankles as we head for the next winery – Pierro. As we get out of the car I can smell the lees and my tastebuds start a little jingle. My husband loves the LTC – an SBS with a “little touch of chardonnay”. I adore the 2011 Chardonnay. Sure the 2009 scored big but I can’t imagine much difference with a bit of cellaring. As for the 2009 Pinot Noir – yum, yum, yum – and just the thing for a cold night in front of the fire.

Day 3 – Margaret River

Let-the-liver-off day. We head south to see the caves, the forest, some beaches, Augusta and Cape Leeuwin lighthouse. Lake Caves 1Lake Caves is our first stop. A very steep track takes us down to the cave entrance and into the mystical netherworld of dolomites, stalactites and many other-ites.

Karri TreesThese caves are enchanting and more so for being surrounded by the magnificent towering karri trees of the Boranup forest. These giants grow to 90 metres, making them the third tallest tree in the world.

Hamelin BayWe brave the blustery wind and take a walk along Hamelin Bay – only sorry it’s too miserable to navigate more of what looks like a very scenic pathway over the cliffs. Cape Leeuwin LighthouseWhale-watching plans thwarted by the weather, we pop into a bakery at Augusta for a very hearty potato and leek soup and square up to the elements to get some snaps of Cape Leeuwin lighthouse and the old water wheel.Cape Leeuwin Augusta Water Wheel

The drive to Jewel Caves from here takes us through some of the most gorgeous countryside I’ve ever seen (including Scotland). These caves are significantly bigger than the Lake Caves, with more formations and vast chambers. Each is unique though and I recommend doing both. Nature’s galleries often really are the finest.Jewel Caves 4