The view from the window provides a huge clue to the philosophy behind this enduring Hunter Valley restaurant.
It's of a garden brimming with heirloom fruit and vegetables where chickens roam free. That's a very short distance from paddock to plate. And there's one more secret ingredient not easily seen; bees. Bees provide honey but more importantly, fertilise those vegetables and fruits.
This place has undergone several incarnations since it began its life as Roberts under Robert Molines. When Robert left, the baton was passed to Daniel Hunt then to George Francisco, and Roberts at Peppertree became Circa 1876.
In 2015 Trent Barrett took the reins as executive chef of both Circa 1876 and Restaurant 88 in the main accommodation house, The Convent.
Raised on the NSW Central Coast, Barrett always wanted to be a chef, getting inspiration from his grandmother and her kitchen garden as well as from his butcher father who taught him respect for all types of animal and cuts of meats.
- Where: 64 Halls Road, Pokolbin; 4998 4999; www.circa1876.com.au
- Executive Chef: Trent Barrett
- Drinks: extensive range of cocktails, spirits, beers and wines; 20 wines by the glass.
- Hours: Open Friday to Tuesday; Lunch, 12pm - 2.30pm (Lunch closed Mon & Tue); Dinner: 5.30pm - 9pm
- Vegetarian: separate à la carte and five course tasting menus.
- Bottom line: Two courses, $75; three courses, $95; five courses, $120; seven courses $150.
- Wheelchair access: Yes, also disabled toilets
- Do try: Redgate Farm partridge.
He went on to find further inspiration, first from his apprenticeship at Pescatores Italian Restaurant at Airlie Beach with long-time mentor Jason Kildare, then from culinary heroes like Heston Blumenthal, Marco Pierre White, Peter Gilmore, Rene Redzepi, Brent Savage, Grant Achatz, Shaun Presland and Andrew McConnell.
The amuse bouche, which they call 'a kitchen treat' is designed to bring interaction with and fun from the kitchen. Today's are tempura shimeji mushrooms with house made harissa sauce, paper-thin crisp wontons and miniature rafts of grilled haloumi cheese with garden cucumbers.
As well as the à la carte, five- and seven-course regular menus there are also dedicated vegetarian a la carte and five-course tasting menus which both offer enough protein to satisfy the most critical eater.
Even carnivores will love the zucchini flowers which have been stuffed with ricotta jazzed up with orange zest and honey before being coated with a whisper of tempura batter then deep fried and garnished with pine nuts, currants and a basil pesto.
Things fishy include crunchy tempura soft shell crab perched on a nest of wakame and finely-shredded celeriac in a remoulade sauce, with a kick of chilli jam and lime. Then three pearlescent, lightly seared sea scallops topped with wafers of smoked pork jowl line up on a bed of bacon, corn pickle and caramelised cauliflower flavoured with black garlic puree and apple cider glaze.
More fishy dishes include a crisp-skinned fillet of Glacier 51 toothfish given an Asian twist with Japanese eggplant, bok choy, a tangle of pickled daikon, scattered garlic stems and sesame seeds.
Redgate Farm partridge, one of the meatier mains, uses classical French technique to roast and present the segmented bird, each part perfectly cooked and partnered with a celeriac soubise, baby leeks and carrots as well as a thyme-perfumed mulberry jus, all components from the garden. Delicious.
All six desserts are more than afterthoughts. Circa Strawberries and Cream sounds light and healthy and features perfectly ripe, just-picked strawberries, a far cry from tasteless supermarket fruit. The flavour and texture is boosted further with dehydrated strawberries, strawberry jelly and vanilla and strawberry ice cream.
It comes to the table with pizzazz in a cloud of vapour from the liquid nitrogen used to 'poach' the strawberry mousse.
Throughout the menu sauces reign supreme. Keep some excellent (complimentary) house-made sourdough to mop up.
Overall, the paddock to the plate ethos fuses seamlessly with finely honed technique and impressive attention to detail.
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