Famed for its fine wines and fresh produce, Margaret River is an absolute must for food and wine lovers visiting Western Australia. Jo Frearson dropped in recently to taste test ‘Knee Deep’, WA’s gold plate winner for best restaurant in a country winery.
Text by Jo Frearson
Knee Deep Wines was born during testing times. In the year 2000 when there was an oversupply of grapes, Dr Philip and Sue Childs decided to go against the odds and plant a vineyard. They called it Knee Deep as a ‘tongue in cheek’ reference to jumping in boots and all while many wineries were sinking in a sea of cabernet!
The first vintage of Knee Deep Wines was produced in 2004 followed by the opening of the cellar door in 2006 and then the à la carte restaurant in 2008. With a lot of hard work, passion and determination, Philip and Sue made it, and not only did they make it, they nailed it.
My main reason for visiting Knee Deep was to test out the food. Of course I was keen to sample a wine or two, but I was driving so I needed to act responsibily. (In hindsight I wish I had caught a cab or arranged a skipper as there is nothing worse than having to stop sipping on a glass of Margaret River red.) Tucked away off the road, set amongst the vines in an understated tin-roofed building oozing that quintessential rustic country vibe at first Knee Deeep took me by surprise.
I was expecting some flash and modern, architecturally-designed building, that seemed to be the new trend popping up all around the place. However, as I took my seat overlooking the vineyard I soon began to realise that ‘surprise’ was Knee Deep’s thing, and I would just roll with it.
I was offered the Trust the Chef, a three-course degustation menu, after admitting everything looked delicious and I simply couldn’t decide. The maître d’ told me not to worry, “Just trust the chef. That’s what we’re famous for. We’ll decide for you. Just sit back and relax and enjoy the view.” So I did. I stared out at the vines coming out of hibernation in preparation for the next harvest and breathed in the fresh country air acknowledging I needed to get down here more often to this beautiful part of the world.
Then my entrée arrived and the neighbouring table was staring with food envy. Magnificently presented on a rectangular white plate was a 16-hour sous vide pork belly on a green papaya and peanut salad with a sesame seed dressing. It melted in my mouth and matched the 2011 chenin perfectly.
The rustic country restaurant is a popular choice for wedding receptions.
I breathed in the country air and thought that I must visit this part of the world more often.
This whet my appetite and I was salivating at the thought of my main course. Please let it be angus beef, I thought. Well my wish was my command. My second course, a work of art, was a strip of beef tenderloin topped with kytern goats curd tortellini, served on garden pea mousseline with a sneaky beef croquette amongst the mix.
The chef had also added a few fresh peas, shallots and mushrooms as a garnish and the texture and flavours just burst in my mouth. Damn this chef was good. And her presentation exquisite. I would have to find out more. Even the wine pairing was superb. It was easy to see why the 2008 Kelsea’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon had received five stars from wine critic James Halliday.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better the dessert appeared, consisting of different layers including orange and mandarin jelly, yoghurt pannacotta, white chocolate rocky road, fresh strawberries and orange segments, pistachio nuts and a slice of candied orange. Coupled with the 2010 Knee Deep Sweet this was an amazing end to an amazing meal.
The only thing I had to do now was find the chef and discover her secrets. I lured experienced chef Michelle Babb to the bar for a quick chat and soon learned she had a degree in fine arts and that the visual element was very important to her. Combining textures, colours and flavours was integral to her cooking and she was open to experimentation.
“That’s really how Trust the Chef came about,” she said. “I would practice with things in the fridge and in season and play with things on the à la carte menu. It then dawned on me that perhaps diners would like me to choose for them, and I like surprising people, so I thought, why not?”
I decided to do a bit of research amongst the fellow diners to see if Michelle’s surprises were as much a hit with everyone else as they were for me. After all, not everyone likes a surprise. To my surprise I found out that not only was Trust the Chef the perfect choice for indecisive diners it was also a clear winner for those who knew exactly what they wanted. A holidaying couple on their fourth visit to Knee Deep in two weeks said nowhere else in the region compared to it, especially at the price, and they had tried all the three, five and seven course degustation menus. “You must try five courses next time” they said. “Three courses just isn’t enough.”
I informed them that unfortunately this was a short trip and that the five and seven courses would have to wait. However, I would be returning sooner than I had anticipated as the food was just too good. As the restaurant began to close I opted for a cup of tea to set me on my way and noted that whilst I was knee deep in wine and food heaven, I was also knee deep in trust, and that felt really good.Click to view slideshow.