Chris Thornton was given a blank canvas from Dalwood Estate when it came to designing a menu for its June long weekend lunches.
The owner and chef at Restaurant Mason started painting a picture based on what he would like the eat: a menu that was “”enjoyable, approachable and not too heavy”, he told Food & Wine.
“It also had to be something we could produce off-site at a high volume without losing any quality,” he explained.
“Then when I looked at the final menu I realised it contained dishes that I have eaten and thoroughly enjoyed over the past 18 or so years. Dishes that had stuck in my mind for whatever reason. The leek and gruyere tart, for example, was a dish made by Peter Bryant at Restaurant II. It’s still one of my favourite entrees to eat. It’s just delicious.”
One of the two mains on the menu was inspired by chef Ben Sales and the confit duck with braised witlof, spinach and white beetroot he plated up for Thornton at Majors Lane near Lovedale.
“As for my favourite dessert of all time, it’s the date and vanilla tart with orange and cardamon ice-cream I had while at The Ledbury. That made it on to my menu too.”
Thornton has been working with Angelic Events to promote Dalwood Estate, including cooking at its official launch a few months back. He hopes to set up a more permanent catering kitchen at the property, having already secured two full-time catering contracts in the Hunter Valley in recent years.
Dalwood Estate closed in 2014 and has reopened in its 190th year thanks to an intensive revival project from Iris Capital. There is a function centre on site as well as a cellar door, restaurant, walking trails and public barbecue areas on the banks of the Hunter River.
The winery has reopened and the 2018 vintage will be released this year. It is thought to be Australia’s oldest winery and the first to establish a commercial shiraz vineyard. It also produces chardonnay and semillon.
Thornton, a previous winner of the Brett Graham Scholarship whose Newcastle restaurant has held on to its Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide hat since 2011, reckons Newcastle’s food scene is on the brink of “another big explosion”.
“It happened about three years ago, our third year at the restaurant. Newcastle was pumping: you had us, Bacchus, Restaurant II and Subo,” Thornton explained. “It had a good buzz about it and I think it’s going to go bang again.”
On a personal level, Thornton is as enthusiastic about cooking as he was when he stepped into his first commercial kitchen.
“I have so much fun in this industry. A lot of chefs and customers think it’s best to go to Sydney or Melbourne, not realising that some of the best food and places to work in are actually right here in the Hunter. There’s a reason why I have a restaurant here and a reason why I will always have a restaurant here.”
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