John Maddocks heads west, seeking fine dining in the heart of Mudgee’s wineries.
This is a degustation with a difference. It’s a performance piece: part high wire act, part magic show. And sitting at the Blue Wren Chef’s Table, a bench where much of the preparation takes place, I have a front row seat. The chefs seem very competent, but if they stuff up, it will be in full view.
Few chef’s table experiences in Sydney have you seated so near to the action. A view of the kitchen through glass is sometimes as close as you get. A meet and greet with the chef at the beginning and a chat at the end of the night are often the extent of the contact. But the Blue Wren experience is truly intimate. If this is theatre, the diners are almost on stage with the chef. And that’s exactly how head chef and owner Kip Harris likes it.
“I want guests to share the experience with us,” Kip tells me. “We should get to know each other in a welcoming and homely way. I want diners to come along with us on the creative process, to discuss what’s going on and ask questions if they feel like it. And, of course, the whole thing should be fun.”
Both Kip and fellow chef Steve certainly seem to be having fun. I watch as they prepare crispy skinned duck with duck liver ice-cream brulee, pickled radish, cauliflower, crouton and dehydrated raspberry. It’s one of Blue Wren’s signature dishes, but I’m not prepared for the theatrical flourish when Steve suddenly blasts the brulee with a blowtorch.
“Sometimes we have to work a little outside the box,” Kip says in response to our surprised gasps. But behind this seeming understatement lies decades of industry experience both in Australia and overseas. And there’s a long history with Blue Wren itself.
“I worked as general manager for my father over ten years ago and I’ve always loved this place. So it was a natural step to buy the winery from him and keep the family business going.”
Keeping the family business going is a very low-key way of describing Kip’s achievements. In two years he’s transformed Blue Wren by rebuilding the restaurant and expanding the adjoining function centre to seat 200 guests. While these accomplishments are significant, it’s ultimately a passion for food and innovation that motivates Kip.
“I want to give people an unforgettable dining experience,” he says. “And to do that I’m always researching and experimenting with new flavours and technologies for our constantly changing menu. I believe that gastronomy forms the foundation of memorable food experiences.”
The mention of gastronomy leads me to ask Kip if he identifies with the approach of celebrity chefs like Heston Blumenthal, who helped popularise ‘molecular gastronomy’, the application of scientific principles to the development of food preparation.
“Heston is good, but there are lots of chefs who take a gastronomical approach,” Kip replies. “My passion is in the details. I love experimenting because I want to find new ways of combining ingredients that push the boundaries of the diners’ perception of flavour.”
There’s no doubt that the five-course winter tasting menu pushes boundaries, challenging both the visual and taste senses. We start with a celeriac soup of broad beans, peas, asparagus, poached egg, truffle oil and parmigiana reggiano. The menu then progresses to dishes featuring seared scallop, pork belly and chateaubriand. But it is what these ingredients are combined with that sets Kip’s creations apart. The chateaubriand, for example, is served with cacao, smoked potato puree, pear, black pudding crisp, morel, vegemite foam and horseradish snow. It looks and tastes amazing.
The food is matched with some great wines from Blue Wren’s vineyard, including shiraz, rose and verscato. The reserve shiraz is excellent and can hold its own in any company, demonstrating once again how far Mudgee wines have come.
Sitting with a glass of shiraz enjoying the Blue Wren restaurant’s cutting-edge cuisine with Kip and Steve in the middle of a peaceful, idyllic vineyard makes it hard to believe that the hustle and noise of Sydney dining is just a three-and-a-half-hour drive away. It’s wonderful to just savour the moment.
Should you want to extend the moment, stay for the weekend at Blue Wren’s new five- bedroom Farmhouse. It’s a great base for exploring everything that hip and historic Mudgee has to offer. Get a group of friends together for a memorable weekend.
It’s an easy, scenic drive from Sydney or you can fly there with regional airline Fly Pelican www.flypelican.com.au, which services Mudgee six times a week from T2 at Sydney.
The Blue Wren Restaurant opens for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday and for lunch from Friday to Sunday. The five-course tasting menu is $98 per person with matching wines from the Blue Wren range at $35 per person. Bookings are essential. Information and bookings: www.bluewrenwines.com.au or Tel: +61 2 6372 6205
Address: 433 Ulan Road, Mudgee NSW 2850
Staying at the winery in the cosy, well-appointed five-bedroom Farmhouse allows you to enjoy the considerable delights of Mudgee in a relaxed and leisurely way.
The writer was a guest of Blue Wren Winery