I’ve spent a lot of time in the Hunter Valley, especially when I did a blitz on the area for Delicious magazine two years ago, so I’ve gotten to know the area intimately. And I’ve always enjoyed my time up here, especially once I’ve learned that the best parts are those that get further and further away that hell-hole of white tour buses that stretch from Hunter Valley Gardens across the road to Tempus Two. And when it comes to eating, I’ve had terrific meals at places like Majors Lane, Shakey Tables, Splash, Lazzarini’s and Café Beltree (which I need to try again now that iconic Hunter chef Robert Molines has departed Robert’s and taken over).
Still, any foodie who’s dined in the Hunter Valley has known that the area has lacked a true restaurant destination – an eatery so good, you want to go to the Hunter just to dine there. Orange has Lolli Redini and Selkirks, the Blue Mountains has Vulcans, Northeast Victoria has Simone’s, Byron used to have Fins (so now I can’t wait to go to the new Fins in Kingscliffe!). And now, if the reports are true, the Hunter has Rock restaurant.
My partner Sarah is from Singleton, so this weekend we decided to escape the APEC madness and instead enjoy bumper-to-bumper traffic on our way up to the Hunter. And I decided I had to try Rock, especially now that it’s received a whopping 15.5 points and a hat from the Herald’s spanking new Good Food Guide.
Sadly, everyone else had the same idea, and Rock was booked out all weekend. And, dammit, even my not-so-subtle hints at being a food journo and schmoozing the PR folks didn’t get me in. (Don’t they know who I am?) So we settled on lunch, where Rock turns into the more casual Firestick Café. Which I wasn’t that overjoyed about, but I really wanted to check out the place, so I settled for second-best.
Well, in retrospect, second-best is pretty bloody good.
The café didn’t have my reservation, so we settled for one of the couches in the bar area, which instead an unfortunate mishap, turned into a strong preference. It’s far more comfortable and relaxed (although sadly restricted to just drinks at dinnertime), and Sarah and I sat down and checked out the views of the Poole’s Rock shiraz vines and the fountains forming neat circles with their downpours into a man-made pond. The staff then started us out with a complementary amuse bouche of tiny guinea fowl rillettes, sandwiched between small rounds of puffed choux pastry. If this is a casual café, I can’t wait to see what they do for dinner.
Rock doesn’t look much from the outside, mostly just a large shed, which apparently came out of some 15 different architectural renderings inspired by a working woolshed and mucked around by lots of decision-makers. Once we stepped inside, the décor was far more impressive, with dark-chocolate and vanilla coloured walls, and one whole side of the building consisting of oversized glass sliding doors that frame the outdoor vines, pond and rolling hills, and open up to an outdoor wood deck. It was a bit chilly today, so the deck was empty, with everyone tucked away inside and enjoying the flames from the kitchen’s woodfired oven, but it would be a killer spot for a table on a warming sunny day.
We started with entrees of gravlax with watercress, poached egg and brioche; and the gemfish special with braised lentils. The gravlax, cut from whole salmon cured onsite with salt and sugar for 24 hours, was so smoothly flavoured, it almost made me want to give up smoked salmon for life. It did, though, seem to call for something simpler than the thick brioche that lay beneath. As for the gemfish, it was the moistest piece of seafood I’ve had in quite a while, pan-fried to a lovely crispiness on top, and paired with Puy lentils braised in a fish stock with shards of carrot and, I think, shallots. In a word: faultless.
Being on Poole’s Rock’s turf, we naturally decided to pair the meal with one of its wines. While Poole’s Rock has a gold medal-winning chardonnay, I often find award-winning chardies too big on the oak for my tastes, so we opted for the Cockfighter’s Ghost pinot noir. I’m not always a fan of Cockfighter’s, being the lower-level and often less-interesting brand for Poole’s Rock, but the pinot, from Tasmania’s Tamar Valley was nicely light and fruity, and it was just the kind of effortless drinking we wanted for lunch. In fact, it’d be a perfect red for summer days and picnics.
The main event was a woodfired chorizo pizza, cooked nice and cripy, though maybe needing a hit of chilli and I did find there to be too much chewy fat in the chorizo. That I still enjoyed it was due to the flavourful base and nicely seasoned cheese. And last up was dessert, a chocolate mascarpone tart, which if it didn’t rock my world, it was certainly pleasing.
There’s a lot to like about the Firestick/Rock, and if I had any complaints, it would be that the dining area seems a little cold, and the pond a little too man-made looking. A little character would be a good infusion. But like another favourite eatery, Sean’s Panaroma in Bondi, the Firestick shows yet again that you can wow people with food simply done well, and with the kind of restraint you only get with experience. Chef Andrew Clarke got that in Sydney at Claude’s, Buon Ricordo and Bathers’ Pavilion, so there’s no mistake that he has a wise output from his kitchen.
It’s good to see the Hunter finally get a simple but beautiful restaurant, and get a chef’s hat in a central spot that doesn’t require you to haul yourself up to the ever-faithful 25-year-old Old George and Dragon in the upper Hunter (but I can’t wait to make it up there too, and soon). It also beats the far-too-common, overpriced roast/confit/braised duck in Pokolbin, which gives me something to celebrate with a world-beating Hunter semillon.