Outstanding produce cooked with culinary finesse: Pipeclay Pumphouse is a serious contender for another Mudgee hat, says Liz Schaffer
Visitors have been making culinary pilgrimages to places like Mudgee for decades; seeking out farm gates, honesty boxes and cellar doors for the exceptional produce found in such secret spots. Sadly, though, the local restaurant scene of such places often falls by the wayside; the best produce (and intentions) foiled by clumsy recipes, or merely a lack of local ambition and interest in building the region’s dining scene.
But – but! – every now and then, the culinary stars align, and a regional restaurant of such stellar pedigree emerges that diners are lured from across the state, country, or even, on wild occasions, from around the globe to sample its creations.
Call me crazy (or just suffering that fresh-from-dinner condition, which I’ll call ‘wine-bias’), but I’ll put it to you anyway: Pipeclay Pumphouse just may be one of those places.
Launched in October last year, set in the 23-year-old pumphouse that once supplied the Robert Stein Winery (a winery that is still very much producing wine today), Pipeclay Pumphouse knows how to work with what she’s got.
Stone floors, wooden flourishes and a corrugated iron roof keep the soul of the building’s original purpose alive, while a rotating selection of paintings from regional artists keeps the interior… interesting. (Magpies, trout and yabbies were the motifs of choice during my visit; inoffensive enough, but not outstandingly memorable. Though restaurants rarely get art right – have you noticed?)
Floor-to-ceiling windows, on the other hand, are flawless, cleverly inviting the outside world in (and what a world it is! Mudgee, you’re beautiful).
The menu is as inspired as its outdoor surrounds. Most ingredients are homegrown or locally sourced and the dishes, centered around simple techniques designed to ‘intensify freshness’, rightly pay homage to the land. Owner and head chef Andy Crestani (of Nove Cucina and Otto Ristorante fame) wouldn’t have it any other way: an avid follower of the paddock-to-plate ethos, he rears his own free-range pigs and ducks and apparently can often be seen wandering the pretty on-site gardens.
As you’d expect from a produce-driven menu, the attention to detail here is astounding. Individual ingredients speak for themselves in both the á la carte and degustation options, and when we opt for the former, things start well with a perfectly clear tomato soup amuse-bouche, which comes garnished with micro herbs as fresh-tasting as the colour green itself.
Next, salmon ceviche is pink, plump and entwined with yet more garden-fresh vegies, and goes down a treat with a glass of 2012 rosé. Mains have a stronger European influence, and though barramundi with king brown mushrooms and beautifully buttery scampi is outrageously sumptuous and arrives atop a carved wooden platter (very dramatic), it’s the twice-cooked chicken breast, with braised leg voulevant, buttery parsnip puree, baby carrots and eshallots that is the hearty, comforting stand-out.
True to the menu’s premise, the creamy, wine-infused mouth-feel of the dish highlights, rather than overpowers, the vibrant freshness of each ingredient; paired with an earthy merlot, it is a lovely exercise in Mudgee’s regional best.
Speaking of wines (any excuse, really), the list here is a curious anomaly, comprised entirely of varieties from the on-ground winery. The range on offer is quite commendable (and at near-cellar door prices, a bit of a bargain), but it does seem a wasted opportunity not to have hand-picked and showcased the best drops of the region. Even with that cheeky move, though, Crestani wins me over.
His finale, a caramelised fig mille-feuille with honey marshmallow, is the sweet, airy re-imagination of a French classic this country environment deserves, and it is with regret that we finally leave our table. With meals like this, though, Mudgee’s place on the gastronomic map isn’t going anywhere; surely, we’ll be back for more.
The details: Robert Stein Vineyard & Winery, Mudgee
The Verdict: Food with soul in a surprisingly elegant, welcoming and original setting.
The score: 17/20; excellent
We rated: The fresh fare and the intimate yet friendly atmosphere.
We hated: The wine list doesn’t showcase local talent like it should.
Notes: Dinner starts at $55 for two courses, $65 for three courses. Degustation is $85 for seven courses, $125 for ten courses; matching wines additional.
Contact: 02 6373 3998; Pipeclay Lane, Mudgee, pipeclaypumphouse.com.au