Thursday, 31 May 2007

Kill the...(Large Black)...Pig! - de Bortoli Winery Restaurant

Earlier in the month, KB and I spent a leisurely weekend at Victoria's Yarra Valley wine region to celebrate a quiet birthday. It's late autumn here now though you wouldn't know it with the continuing warm weather we've been having. But what a lovely time of year to have a meander through the wineries, catching the vines in the midst of slipping from their greenery into the lemony and amber tones of the season. As an added bonus we even had a rare sprinkling of celebratory rain. Just enough to freshen and polish the thirsty landscape. It's remarkable how we all miss the rain, almost a vague and abstract concept as the country struggles through another year of record breaking drought. Hope we'll have more soon...the weathersayers tentatively tell us the signs are promising.

As part of our little weekend retreat, we had a Saturday dinner booking at the Italian style restaurant of the renowned De Bortoli Yarra Valley Winery. We'd visited this winery for wine and cheese tastings a few times before during our previous sojourns into the region, and had always made a note to ourselves that one day we'll try the restaurant. Well a quick call earlier that week, whilst desk-bound at work and daydreaming of everything else but, had secured us our opportunity! On our evening, it was already well into darkness and cool with gusts of wind and a slight drizzle as we pulled into the long dirt drive of the estate. The glow of lights from the red-bricked villa in which the restaurant is housed was welcomed indeed. Inside was even more cosy, radiating warmth from cream coloured walls and a simple but elegant arrangement of timber furnishings and white linened tables. Large lattice-paned windows throughout suggested that day-time visitors will be rewarded with great views of the surrounding vineyard, but we were happy enough just to be out of the dark as we were shown to our table. Despite De Bortoli's relative isolation from the nearby townships, restaurant staff were already being kept lively with the initial sitting. I guess with dinner bookings only being offered for Saturdays, people have to grab the chance when they can.

The menu was comprehensive enough to encourage a slow second read-through and some self debate over choices. I salivated over most (if not everything) on the list, which offered a selection of provincial Italian inspired fare tweaked to modern fine-dining standards and head-chef Cameron Cansdell's homage to local (Yarra Valley) produce. We decided on contrasting entrées of Pippies and Mussells in White Wine, Saffron and Tomato...($17) and a Salad of Figs, Gorgonzola, Rocket and Hazelnuts with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Red Wine Vinaigrette ($17). I very nearly couldn't go past trying the Pork Terrine with Lentils, Lambs Tongue Lettuce, Capers and Mustard Vinaigrette ($17), lured by the accompanying chef's note of "...a very special technique of cooking the black pigs head in white wine and aromatics for a long time to achieve a clean and complex tasting terrine". Who as a curious foodie, would not find that hard to resist? But pork derived from the imaginatively named breed known as the Large Black Pig (okay I guess the pig IS large...and black) seems to be the star produce in Chef Cansdell's arsenal, and so I'd decided to reserve it for my main event.
Crusty strips of bread (actually it WAS really only the crusts, which was a bit stingy bread-wise) and a saucer of extra virgin olive oil arrived soon after orders. The oil was something else...luminescent, heady, piquant and delicious; quality stuff. We regret not having asked where it was sourced so we can get some more of it, and were still happily sopping it onto our crusts when our salad and bowl of shellfish arrived. The classical salad combination was a well assembled contrast of sweet fresh figs, sharp blue cheese, peppery leaves and a thankfully light drizzle of dressing, and we both couldn't get enough of it...more-ish indeed. The molluscs made their appearance nestled within opened shells in a light tomato-based broth sweet with their briny liquor. Fresh, uncomplicated, unadulterated, and just how we like it. Thankfully a fresh basket of crusts was proffered so we could mop this up to the last drop too! I do however, have my reservations as to whether pippies (small surf clams) have any claim to a place in higher-end, expensive dining. Perhaps the addition of a scampi half or two would have increased the value quotient even though it would've meant detracting from the molluscan theme.

Very Large...and very Black...Pigs!
(Images taken from the
UK Large Black Pigbreeders Club website).

The restaurant unashamedly sold the eating virtues of the Black Pig, in its Menu notes and in case you missed that, it's further spruiked by the wait-staff. Apparently this traditional English breed is in danger of facing extinction due to a modern preference for white porcine breeds that are better suited to intensive high-density meat production. However a small number of specialist producers, one of which is located in the Yarra Valley (Eastwind Rare Breeds Farm) have committed themselves to maintaining the breed and supplying its high-quality meat using organic free-range farming practices. Basically happy pigs are raised which are reflected in the quality of the pork! Well my highly anticipated main of Roast Local Black Suckling Pig with Mostarda d'uva, Roast Fennel, Rosemary and Garlic ($34) certainly did not disappoint. I often find pork rather bland but the carefully roasted meat in this case was tender and succulent with the right amount of fat infusing it with plenty of flavour. Then there was the deliciously thin, smooth and crunchy crackling that could only have come from a very young pig. The rest of the dish also delivered full rustic flavours, from the roast fennel and garlic to the sweetish chutney-like accompaniment. Devouring a rare breed of pig down to the last morsel may not seem like the proper or expected thing to do but apparently the more people like us know about the tasty virtues of non-intensively farmed breeds like the Large Black, the greater the demand and hence returns for niche producers to continue to maintain them. I for one, am happy to contribute my part. Our other main, a duck duo of In-House Duck Sausage and Confit of Duck Leg... ($32) was also full of hearty robust flavours. We found the confit of leg to be melt-in-your-mouth and not at all greasy although just a little on the salty side, but that was probably to be expected from the style of preparation. Surprisingly though, the sausage was perfectly tasty without being too salty. Platings for the mains were quite generous so we only had room enough to share dessert, the Warm Quince & Walnut Upside Down Cake with Vanilla Anglaise and Granny Smith Apple Sorbet ($13). The moist baked tartlet was true comfort food but the scoop of sorbet made it memorable, each spoonful reminiscent of the tartly-sweet crispness of KB's favourite green apples! Haha, she said it was a pity we had to share.

As would be expected the wine list comprised of offerings from the various De Bortoli wineries. I stretched out a glass of young Gulf Station pinot noir over dinner and of course, had to sample a glass of the famed Noble One botrytis semillon to accompany dessert and coffee. Prices by the glass were as expected. Attention to service fluctuated through the evening but was efficient enough. The waiter designated to our table was attentive and chatty up until orders were taken, then lost all interest. However our needs were sufficiently attended to by him or others when called upon. All in all a truly pleasant evening in a cosy fine dining winery restaurant serving unpretentious food prepared with great respect for the quality local Yarra Valley produce. I look forward to my next opportunity to do my part in saving the Large Black Pig from threat of's only responsible.

Food: 4 spots - Unpretentious but thoughtful fare dedicated to quality local produce.
Service: 3.5 spots - Unobtrusive though attention to tables could be better.
Value: 4 spots - Expected prices for this type of restaurant but did not feel bad or guilty after.
R-Factor: 4 spots - There are other Yarra Valley restaurants to try but will not mind returning...and we do have a responsibility!

Spot Score: 16/20 - Recommended.

De Bortoli Yarra Valley Winery Restaurant
Pinnacle Lane, Dixons Creek (Yarra Valley), VIC.

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