Hunter Valley veteran Robert Molines has made a double comeback to the famous NSW wine region, trailing two promising new restaurants in his wake, Bistro Molines and Briar Grillade. Words by Flora King.
It’s been barely a blink since culinary virtuoso and Hunter Valley veteran Robert Molines opened his much-anticipated Bistro Molines at the Tallavera Grove vineyard in Mount View – but now he’s back with yet another Valley venture, just ten months on and only a short jaunt across the vines at Briar Ridge.
Briar Grillade opened its doors in late August 2009, offering a light, al fresco alternative to heavy Hunter lunchtimes. Housed in a sunny garden courtyard setting with the Brokenback Range as a backdrop, the menu is a fresh and unfussy affair of various small tasting plates, seafood, seasonal soups, salads and signature grill dishes. And with everything priced at under $20, Briar Grillade promises to flatter the wallet as much as the tastebuds – all with an excellent (but not too intimidating) Briar Ridge wine list providing accompaniment.
Molines, an Algerian-born Frenchman, has been hanging his chef’s hat in the Hunter for nearly four decades. He founded the acclaimed Robert’s restaurant at Pepper Tree in 1991, through which, with wife Sally, he set the dining standard in the region for many happy years. But, following the loss of a coveted Chef’s Hat rating from the SMH’s Good Food Guide and a disagreement with new management, Robert left his eponymous eatery in 2007 – a departure he describes as “tragic, a real blow to my confidence.” A friend wasted no time in approaching him about a new enterprise far removed from the Hunter, but it was only after Molines had signed on the dotted line and set the wheels in motion that he realised it wasn’t the right choice. “I slept on it, and woke up knowing I couldn’t leave,” he says. “My boys are here, my friends are here, my animals. The Valley is my home.”
The very French Bistro Molines subsequently opened in October ’08 at the Margan Cellar Door, initially a simple setup, with Sally on the floor and Molines supported by a young apprentice at a six-burner stove in the kitchen. A graphic designer pal created the logo as a gift. Butchers, bakers and local suppliers all stepped in to lend a hand. Even with minimal advertising, word spread quickly. Molines loyalists flocked in, and soon diners were forking over $60 for one-way taxi fares to get there. “I felt amazingly encouraged,” Molines says. “It was definitely the morale boost I needed.”
He attributes much of the achievement to his wife, who humbly describes herself as
“the oldest waitress in Pokolbin”, but who is, in fact, as much an essential part of the parcel as the chef himself – and who Molines describes as “a positive, radiant soul; a massive key to my success.”
The Hunter and Robert Molines are simply two things that naturally go hand in hand.
Bistro Molines has since moved to the Tallavera Grove winery and was awarded a Chef’s Hat of its own this September, with its slightly more affordable younger sibling Briar Grillade a stone’s throw away at Briar Ridge. Both the wineries are owned by good friend John Davis, and both restaurants have a relaxed, intimate and familial feel. While Molines mostly chefs at the former, Sam Alexander, a 21-year-old prodigy of Egyptian origin and culinary flair, mans the kitchen at the Grillade. Together they work on the new and seamlessly expanding menu, which features anything from Port Stephens oysters or char grilled quail on soft polenta with brown butter and sage, to octopus nicoise or Za’aatar chicken with beetroot puree. The dishes are light, and the idea is to continue to select as you are being served. Molines is also working on a food-and-wine-fusion tasting menu, which he hopes to launch at Briar Grillade soon.
Although Briar Grillade is the cheaper and less formal of the two restaurants, Molines is reluctant to label one fine dining and the other casual. “A restaurant should never be categorised to just one area,” he says. “Eating out should be a spontaneous, surprising experience, and guests should interpret a restaurant as they like.” Instead of drawing distinctions between the two, Molines talks of his desire for both restaurants to be friendly, familiar and unpretentious places.
“Who wants waiters with one hand in front of them and one hand behind, looking as stiff as a bloody stick?” (Molines, of course, pronounces it “steeek”, in his deep and smooth-as-treacle French accent.) “A good restaurant is all about warmth, ease, love and affection.” And, as it happens, warmth and ease are exactly the words I’d use to describe my slow, lazy lunch, a couple of glasses of good local wine and a read of the newspaper on the sun-dappled stones of the Briar Grillade courtyard.
The Hunter Valley and Robert Molines are simply two things that naturally go hand in hand. He is, after all, the man responsible for bringing French food to the region many moons ago, and there’s no doubt that the Valley dining scene would lack a certain je ne sais quoi without him. With the excellent reputation of Bistro Molines already well established, and that of Briar Grillade sure to rapidly follow suit, it appears the verdict is in; both restaurants are a delight. Thank goodness he decided to stay.
*Like all AT reviewers, Flora visited Bistro Molines and Briar Grillade anonymously and paid her own way.