Let me start by saying that this is not a review of Bells at Killcare. A review is something you do when you visit a restaurant unannounced, pay the bill with your own money (even better when it’s absconded from an employer), order a cross-section of dishes that you believe will demonstrate the true power and breadth of the kitchen, and enlist a critical eye that spans a lengthy mental checklist: cutlery, glassware, wine service, décor, presentation, flavours, skill, menu grammar, toilet hygiene, the dearth of cockroaches and fruit flies, whether or not your server has the uncanny ability to disappear except when needed, and more. Oh, and it ends with an angst-wrought rating, because you’re affecting someone’s business and you need to get it right.
Bells at Killcare was just about everything I’d hoped it would be, an opinion I share as an invited guest amid a gaggle of top Sydney food bloggers and writers. So call this a profile, a story, a shared experience. Whatever it is, I was picked up from the Surry Hills office by a van with bells on – yes, it actually said “Bells” on the side – and whisked to leafy Killcare, positioned in the only section of the Central Coast that enthrals me: the southern end near Copacabana and McMasters and a sensation little snorkelling spot called Pretty Beach. Here, somehow, overdevelopment hasn’t erased all traces of subtropical beach paradise. In other words, it’s lovely.
A city escape is welcome enough, but when it involves a lunch devised by Steve (‘Stefano’ to the Italophiles) Manfredi, it’s downright exciting. Steve is known to many a Sydney diner from his high-flying days as the chef at the once three-hatted Restaurant Manfredi and then Bel Mondo, a fantastic fine-dining Italian restaurant in a hidden sandstone building within The Rocks. When Manfredi sold the Bel Mondo in 2002, The Rocks lost a destination restaurant – it still exists, but has never recovered its skyward ratings – leaving Rockpool to act as its sole champion. And while Manfredi helped consult on various restaurants over the years, from Manta to Coast, Bells at Killcare feels like the first eatery in several years where he’s put down culinary roots.
And put down roots he has. Literally. Along the grounds of the 16-acre-ish estate, the chef has built two large vegetable gardens and a chicken coop, which drive a fresh, seasonal produce infusion to Bells that taps directly into Manfredi’s cooking ethos – as it would for any serious Italian chef. The chef gave our group a self-guided tour of the gardens, pointing out the various types of artichokes, pulling fresh turnips, red onion and garlic from the ground, and schooling us in the numerous types of greens and lettuces. “Italians like their leaves to be bitter,” he tells us as he bites into a torn sample. We pick and eat sorrel at its peak of juicy sourness, taste the bitterness from our fingers after handling artichoke leaves, and rush in to pick eggs from the chicken coop like overgrown children at a petting zoo. But my favourite animal turns out to be the resident Maremma sheepdog, a gorgeous white breed that hails from Italy and which instinctively protects livestock from predators.
To lunch at Bells at Killcare is to graze amid ocean breezes, whether via the open windows or doors or from a perch on the undercover veranda, which is understandably the most coveted location when the weather cooperates. The setting is a sea of azure blue tumblers, crispy white linens and delicate wine glasses. We fill the private dining room and nibble on olives as we await the seven-course set menu. First to arrive is a polpettine di melanzana, a crumbed ‘meatball’ filled with blanched eggplant and pecorino. It’s a pleasing morsel at the end of a knotted toothpick, first crunchy then pliant, and nicely seasoned with a salsa verde. The polpettine is paired with a glass of Falanghina, a minerally Italian white favoured by the Neopolitans. Picture a lively Hunter semillon with a broad flavour spectrum, and you have one of the top whites I’ve come across this year – Manfredi has it pipped as one of the next big things in wine.
Next, a softened, peeled tomato comes atop braised artichoke and a cannelloni cream, and a hit of dill pulls it all together. It’s simple, but I love it. A baby calamari stuffed with prawns is let down by sand grit and a murky polenta, but things quickly get back on track with little pasta parcels (‘sacchetti’) filled with lamb and dressed lightly in a tomato sauce that nicely pairs rosemary and, I think, sage.
The best dish of the day is the duck arrosto, roasted to ideal tenderness and placed in slices with pickled turnips originating from Bells’ gardens and braised turnip tops. It’s an atypical combination, but it works. Manfredi says the use of the turnip tops illustrates how Italians don’t like to waste anything. “Australia is one of the big wasters of food in the world,” he says, as food writer Carli Ratcliff vaguely recalls the amount of wasted food here to be something like $20 billion per year (later, back home, she checks and comes up with Planet Ark’s stats declaring that Australians throw out 3 million tonnes of food per year, or 136 kilos per person). While sipping on a pinot bianco blend and then a carignan-shiraz red, we talk about Bells’ steadfast use of compost from the restaurant, which is fed to the chickens and used in to fertilise the gardens.
We finish with baked cherry custard tart with a curiously pleasing pine nut-and-rosemary gelato, and a sensational Sicilian raisin wine called Zibibbo (“It’s like Christmas in a glass,” says Steve), then retire to the bar for cappuccinos and long blacks, made from the chef’s own Espresso di Manfredi coffee beans.
As this point comes my main complaint about the meal. I am ready for a long siesta, and really should be staying overnight at Bells to linger in a hammock and absorb such a delightful meal to the sweat sound of wind-rustled trees. We make unsubtle hints about next time and Steve’s business partner (and ex-wife) Julie Manfredi jokes about putting in bunkbeds for bloggers (excellent idea, by the way). We get back into the van with Bells on for the ride home, a box of Peroni to help pass the time. As we bid adieu, I’m already thinking about a return trip, when I can sneak in a surf or snorkel after my post-lunch nap, and stick around for a next-day lazy breakfast.
Bells at Killcare: Boutique hotel, restaurant & bar, 107 The Scenic Rd, Killcare Beach, Central Coast, NSW, +61 2 4360 2411, www.bellsatkillcare.com.au