Sydney-siders, the next time you visit the Hunter Valley, whether it be for a relaxing romantic retreat, a tasting tour of the vineyards or a music festival in the vines, make sure you top off your experience by dining at Muse Restaurant. Actually, I would even venture to say that it is worth travelling the two hours there and back just for dinner at Muse, regardless of any other plans in the Hunter. It is simply that good.
Situated in picture-perfect Pokolbin, with expansive, green views of local vineyards and rolling hills in the background, tinged blue at dusk, you may even see kangaroos hopping past your floor-to-ceiling window. The décor is chic country-estate style, with little electric table down-lights which feel like candlelight. There is an open view of the spacious, chefs-dream-kitchen, with no Gordon Ramsay style shouting calls disturbing the peace of the diners. In fact, the cooking staff themselves seem at peace, relaxed and in harmony with each other. Interestingly, they are dressed in blue shirts and brown aprons – no whites.
The table service is friendly, professional and classy. Our waiter was an older gentlemen with a refined tone of voice, in which I detected a hint of a British accent. He was obviously well experienced, knew to introduce and describe the dishes well and treated us with dignity.
We were to enjoy the Saturday night degustation. Our menu outlined the 6 courses that were to come. But there was more than expected in store for us. Upon seating, we were brought homemade light rye sourdough bread with whipped butter. Then a tray came with tiny glass bottles with straws that looked like Arabian oil lamps. These contained a Shitake mushroom tea, which was like a consommé. It was clear and delicate, subtle and yet complex and full of flavour. Next appeared a dish of pork puffs, which were like crackling, but very light and not at all oily. The puffs were pleasantly seasoned with a seaweed dust. To follow was a light, interesting taro crisp each. These were all just appetisers – we hadn’t even reached the first item on our menu yet!
Sashimi of Petuna Ocean Trout – This was like a ceviche, delicate and refreshing, with bursts of citrus and tiny balls of cucumber. It was also very prettily decorated with micro-herbs and edible flowers. There was a bit of theatre to boot with a smoky dry-ice whey which the waiter poured over the dish at the table.
Red Deer Tartare and Pickled Turnip ‘Gyoza’ – This was a most interesting dish. It cleverly plays with the senses. You think it’s hot, but it cold. You think it’s a dumpling, but it’s not pastry, it’s finely sliced and folded turnip. You think there are some boiled oats sprinkled on top, but they’re crispy, crunchy puffs of buckwheat that add an incredible contrast of texture, without complicating or distracting the flavour. And you would never guess the meat inside is deer, as there is no gamey tone whatsoever.
Little Hill Farm Chicken – Forget everything you know about chicken. At weddings, when the choice is chicken or something else, I always go for the something else. But this is by far the best chicken I’ve ever had. Hands down. Wafer-thin, crispy chicken skin, not at all greasy, with a salty, creamy terrine and deboned chicken wing – this is a celebration of the chicken. With shaved macadamia snow, baked and smashed artichoke and a hint of sweetness here and there from dots of date, this is a perfectly balanced dish.
Armidale Spring Lamb – Perfectly pink, impossibly tender and juicy, bursting with just the right size layer of moreish fat. The roast onion and black garlic togarashi sauce is salty and rich, yet subtle enough to open up the flavour of the lamb itself, instead of overshadowing it. To the side, a cannoli of Tuscan kale filled with Bonnorie goats’ curd is delicate yet firm enough to retain its shape and not flatten and spill out under the pressure of your knife.
Iced Semillon Verjuice – the perfect palate cleanser. Light, cool, refreshing, with a nice acidic bite.
Muse Coconut – this creative, innovative dessert is the most famous signature dish of Muse Restaurant. Bearing the name of the restaurant, it is their eponymous hero. Given that the menu provides no written description under the title of this dish, I will respect that they don’t want to give away too many details. Let me just say that this ‘coconut’ is divine and has to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.
The degustation will set you back $125 per person for food only, $180 with local Hungerford Hill wines and $225 with alternate premium wine. This is clearly not a cheap eat, but given that the sitting takes in all a good 3 hours, with minimal waits in-between dishes, and especially as each dish is so individually crafted to such incredible standards, it really is worth every dollar. Of course, Muse has an a-la-carte menu too, in which prices vary, and they even have a dedicated vegetarian menu, as well as a menu for children. On Saturday nights however, only the 6-course tasting menu is available.
Muse is the perfect place to dine for that special occasion with that special someone. Funnily enough, the night we were there, we witnessed a public proposal, as a fellow diner got down on one knee at the table next to us. The whole room burst into spontaneous applause. I couldn’t help but think that the guy chose well. What an appropriate venue for such a memorable moment.
Check out http://musedining.com.au for more information and reservations.
By Alicia Tripp
Alicia is a Sydney Specialist for The Plus Ones. She is a seasoned critic, as a former journalist for the ABC Limelight magazine and State of the Arts. She has a degree in Media & Communications, English and Music from the University of Sydney.
Disclaimer: The Plus Ones were invited guests of Muse Restauarant