So on a recent girls getaway to the Hunter Valley, we had a no-holds-barred day of lazy luxury. Sleeping in, buffet breakfast, lazy naptimes followed by 4 glorious hours in the resort spa. And of course that day could only end in a delicious dinner, this time a tasting menu at EXP Restaurant.
Nestled in the Oakvale Winery, EXP Restaurant is led by hatted Chef Frank Fawkner, previously of the Muse Restaurant at Hungerford Hill Winery. It’s not a big dining room, but definitely one with impact, seating around 10 or so tables plus the gallery seating at the kitchen bar. It’s hard not to turn your head and watch as people walk in, but it’s cosy and I think that’s the point. We loved the sparse but purposeful design of the room: the dark timber, the mini terrarium/air plants on the tables, the lush (faux?) feature greenscape on the wall above the kitchen gallery, the heavy metal of the menus. A little natural, a little minimalist, a little viking.
We were fortunate to get a space at the bar where we could peer into the wonders and organised hustle and bustle of the kitchen. It’s a little confronting for some of us, but mostly fascinating and I love having quick chats with the team when time allows. We are a later seating, so the kitchen is well into full swing when we arrive, and its not long before we are seated, watered and the first course is on the pass.
We’re greeted warmly and introduced to a selection of snacks (featured image above). Now I was too distracted by how cute these were so I’m afraid I don’t remember them all… but I do remember that these snacks were one of my favourite courses, in particular the “bush spring roll of sorts”.
And I remember being really excited for what was to come. 😀 Our appetites whetted (such a weird word), we were served our next starters/tasters. I really love cauliflower, it’s I think my favourite vegetable. Paired with a deliciously subtle savoury custard, how could cauliflower go wrong? There’s a lovely nuttiness to cauliflower that worked perfectly in this dish.
Sometimes in these tasting menu situations, I feel like we might polish off our courses too quickly. I mean I don’t think there’s really any “delicate” way to savour something that could be devoured in three mouthfuls. Not to say that we’re complete savages at our meals, but it’s hard not to feel that way when you soon find yourself scraping the bottom of the bowl (how can you not scrape when it’s proper stoneware…?). Even after you’ve quietly contemplated your first mouthful, I feel the moment is gone all too quickly. It’s a tricky balancing act between respectful enjoyment, actual savouring, brief smalltalk, mild critique (while trying to keep all wankery to a minimum)… all before your dish gets cold. Am I weird?
I think perhaps I’m just weird. Or maybe just a citizen of the “Masterchef revolution”. Which in itself comes with a bit of wankery. We’re all a little bit expert now, or just more aware of the flavours that we experience. We’re all a little critical and we’re also in a hurry to savour more. I’m sometimes never sure if I quite fit in when it comes to the fine dining experience, but as I get older, I definitely know what I like, and I love food, so I can’t be too out of place right? I’m certainly in no hurry here. The snapper was morish and the bisque delicious and complex as only bisque can be. The mushrooms and calamari is one of my highlights – fresh and bright with the lemon myrtle and crunch from noodles (?).
The chicken. Oh the chicken. I always think it’s a brave thing when a restaurant features chicken on their menu. Not that I don’t like chicken, but I think it can be quite a plain meat that can risk being dry and boring, and it takes effort to flavour it well. Or it could also just be an exercise in showing off sous vide skills (just sayin…). When it does appear on a tasting menu though, I can’t help but get a little excited because my previous experiences have often shown that chicken can be a highlight because it does take effort (I’m sometimes wrong). Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed – the chicken was super flavorful, served two ways as a tender cut portion and a crumbed (dark meat?) medallion. Both were delicious with the sweetness of the pumpkin and mussels. Even Y, not a fan of mussels couldn’t fault the dish.
I’m afraid I didn’t get a good shot of the next course, a Pinnacle Meats wagyu dish served with mustard, red cabbage, black garlic. Well marbled and flavorful but a little gristle, so not my favourite of the night. Palette cleansers followed in the form of a fermented honey … shot? Refreshingly unique.
Sweets were interesting. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m more of a savoury person, so in some ways these desserts leaned more into my wheelhouse. The nuttiness of the brown butter ice cream with the apples and saltbush was delicious. And the savoriness of the licorice carrot with the chocolate was really unique – an interesting mouthfeel (yep…) of the dense carrot with the cool ice cream and custard. I personally would have liked some more texture to these desserts, but that’s just me and I can’t fault the flavours.
All in all, it was a really great EXPerience. There was a nice flow to the menu and while not all the dishes stood out to me, I think the restaurant offers a really unique and refreshingly modern menu to the Hunter that I can’t compare to anything else in the region. Their focus on local ingredients is inspiring and will ensure an interesting seasonal menu – this and their talented team leave me curious enough to come back and hopefully explore their menu again next time we’re in the region. 💛
Oakvale Winery, 1596 Broke Road, Pokolbin NSW
EXP.erience tasting for $110 per person.