A few years ago I spent a weekend down south with three friends, which we spent eating Miami Bakehouse pies for almost every single meal, washing them down with copious amounts of wine, supplementing our diet with Cheezels, cheese and crackers, watching 80s movies and thinking the house we were staying in was going to blow into the ocean from the gale force winds battering the coast at the time. We had grand plans of walking down to the beach and getting some exercise in during our girly weekend, but the wind and the pies kept us safely inside.
(To go off on a bubbly tangent, this was also the weekend that I tried Golden Crumpet Toast for the first and last time. Don't be fooled by their website's claims of it being "a fun, convenient way to enjoy that Golden™ crumpet taste". If you think traditional crumpets are boring and inconvenient then you don't deserve to eat them).
On another weekend, I enjoyed my very first degustation experience with these same three girls, and with bellies full to bursting and spirits high (due largely to great company and only somewhat due to the paired wines) we declared that we would henceforth enjoy such an evening together on a semi-regular basis, when our schedules and bank balances could allow it. This fateful evening was so long ago that I can't even give you a ballpark estimate of when it was, and we didn't follow through on this declaration until last month.
We decided some time ago that next on our "dego list" would be Jackson's Restaurant in Highgate. We'd all heard continued good things about the food and service here, and if we needed any further reason to choose this restaurant it was the use of the word "dego" on their website (with chef Neal Jackson explaining that it is Australian for degustation). After deciding upon an upcoming Friday that we were all free, I called to make our booking and was asked to give my credit card details to secure it. This surprised me, and I can't say I particularly liked having to do so, but I hoped that people who use linen napkins could be trusted not to onsell my financial details and I gave them the magic numbers.
With C's wedding to distract me, it wasn't too difficult to wait until the big night, and finally it was upon us and we were all frocked up and ready for a night of eating, drinking and discussion. Upon arrival, we were seated and asked if we would perhaps like to start the night with a glass of sparkling wine, but we were all a little apprehensive about the amount of wine we were about to consume, as we had chosen to do the dego with matching wines for each course, so it was simply tap water all round. We were also asked if we would like some bread for the table, which we declined due to how much food we were expecting to soon be eating, and also not wanting to add extra expenses to what was already going to be an expensive meal out for us all. We were given menus and left to peruse, as although they were aware that we were choosing the degustation, there were a few options to go along with it that we needed to consider whilst our heads were still tap-water clear.
The first option - whether to go with only the food for $120 or to pay $175 to include matched wines for each course. This one was a no-brainer, although we decided against the "premium wine selection" option which was $235. Our next choice was whether or not to start with some oysters ($3.50 - $4.50 each), which I was almost tempted to do but eventually decided against. We then were faced with whether to include a sorbet course within the dego for an additional $8. The two sorbet options were either Mandarin & Campari or Mulled Wine, and we thought this might be a nice refreshing addition to the food overload so we went with it. We could also include an optional cheese course for $12 ($17 with wine or $25 with premium wine) but didn't think our stomachs would be up for it.
(a little aside - apologies for the photography, the restaurant was definitely going the mood lighting route. Also, I did my best to remember the different components of each dish, as they were explained to us when brought out, but I might have to claim a little poetic licence in case I'm mistaken with anything!)
While looking over these options in the menu, we noticed that the bread for the table is listed as complimentary so when our waiter reappeared we changed our earlier refusal of the bread, figuring that free carbs wouldn't use up valuable stomach space. It was worth the risk, with the grain, white, flatbread and cheesy breadsticks all being very fresh. The cheesy breadsticks (I am sure there is a more culinarily fashionable term for these but that is essentially what they were) were deliciously salty, and the seeded flatbread worth risking a poppyseed smile for.
After a little wait, we received the first of three bonus additional courses for the evening - "Greek salad in a cornet". It was a slightly sweet cone, filled with a little lettuce, creamy Persian feta, a really flavoursome gazpacho sorbet, olive tapenade, anchovy, smoked salmon and finely diced red onion. The sweet crunch of the cone matched beautifully with the cool creaminess of the other components. A great start to our meal.
We were then introduced to the first wine of the evening - Vieux Chateau Gaubert 2006, Graves Bordeaux, France - which was to accompany our first official course of "rabbit terrine, peas & carrot". One of the girls doesn't eat game meats, so her terrine was replaced with avocado.Mr Rabbit was very welcoming, crunchy and tasty. The terrine was wrapped in a nice salty proscuitto, and the rabbit confit was smooth and mild. The peas were al dente and scattered with torn mint leaves, and the carrot pieces had their middles removed (possibly in sympathy with Mr Rabbit).
Before we knew it, our next wine - Macon Villages 2008 Verget & Domaine Guffens-Heynen, Bergundy, France - was brought out and described to us, and luckily plenty of glasses were available, even if table space was not, as I hadn't yet finished my previous glass. The next dish to go with this wine was "Sichuan pepper scallops, pork belly, apple, pear, celery".
This was a standout dish of the evening, garnering moans of pleasure from us all. The Shark Bay scallop was enormous and meaty, and cooked to absolute tender perfection. Gogi berries provided a touch of both tartness and sweetness to the amazingly spicy, tangy sauce drizzled around the plate. The chunks of pork belly were divine, with a good amount of fat but mainly consisting of meat (just how I like it), and melted in the mouth. A circle of thinly sliced apple sat between the juicy scallop and the apple, pear and celery salad sitting atop it, which was beautifully fresh with just enough crunch. A stunning dish that I did not want to end.
We were all very happy to receive our next dish which was the second bonus one of the evening - baked figs with Stilton blue cheese, wrapped in proscuitto. You cannot go wrong with this combination. The super soft velvety fig melted in the mouth, cut through by the tang of the Stilton and meaty saltiness of the proscuitto.I was particularly happy with the appearance of this bonus dish as it gave me a chance to catch up on my wine drinking before the next one came out. Bottoms up!
The next wine to meet with our palates was Rimauresq Estate Rose 2007, Provence, France, to accompany our next course of "beef & squid pho". This was my turn to fiddle with the menu, given my non-beef-eating ways, and though I was happy to stick with the pho despite it being made with beef consomme I asked them to not include any beef meat in mine. The pho is served "dry" in bowls, with the broth added from a ceramic kettle at the table (poorly captured in the above photo). This pouring really accentuated just how aromatic this dish is, and throughout the night you could smell when other tables were also enjoying the pho. The pho contained coriander and chilli with slices of squid, beef and beef tripe, served medium rare. It was also served with a lime wedge on the side. I had quite a lot of squid, as I did not have any beef or tripe, and it was incredibly tender. The fragrant broth was fresh, sweet and spiced, and although it was recognisable as beef consomme it was not too 'meaty beefy' and I enjoyed it. Overall, the dish was quite a nice experience given the fragrance and slight spectacle of the pouring.
After a little breather it was time for wine number four - Beaujolais Moulin A Vent "Clos Du Tremblay" 2006 Paul Et Eric Janin, France and our fourth official (7th unofficial) dish of the evening - "Tasmanian salmon, oxtail, red wine, porcini mushrooms". The light, salty potato galette atop the salmon was to represent the scales of the fish, and was nice and crunchy, reminding me of a delicate Thins Chip. All of the individual flavours of this dish were impressive, but we agreed that they got quite lost if you ate any of the components with each other. For instance, it was quite difficult to taste the porcini crust on top of the salmon. The oxtail was a really rich, deep flavour which I absolutely loved, but had to eat it separately from the salmon so as not to overpower the fish.
When these dishes came out from the kitchen we were inadvertently given an insight into the chef's cooking technique for the salmon, as one of the pieces of salmon still had plastic wrap around it, presumably to preserve its shape during the cooking process. The dish was replaced quite promptly after being brought to the apologetic waiter's attention.
It was then time for our optional extra sorbet course, with two of us choosing the Mulled Wine sorbet and the other two choosing Mandarin & Campari. Both were refreshing and tasty but very strong. I think if I'd had another scoop I'd be soon tossing aside my linen napkin and sashaying into the kitchen to have a loud, obnoxious conversation with the kitchenstaff before being politely asked to leave the premises.
Wine number five then appeared, followed by the next course for which we could either choose "duck & orange" or "Amelia Park lamb loin & shoulder". Three of us chose the duck, which was served with Carpe Diem Platinum Series Merlot 2008, Margaret River, WA. The dish consisted of duck four ways - sliced breast with orange, spicy pepper sauce and pureed root vegetables; Peking Duck style with duck confit in a crepe with cucumber salad and hoisin sauce; foie gras with candied kumquat and crispy skin; and a small bowl of soup with Jasmine tea smoked duck breast, quail egg, cellophane noodles and shitake mushrooms.
The sliced breast was nicely cooked and melted in the mouth. I'm such a sucker for Peking Duck and duck confit, so really enjoyed the crepe as well. I hadn't eaten foie gras for quite a while, due to a combination of opportunity, cost, health reasons and the fact although I love to eat I don't entirely agree with force-feeding. I have to admit though, the foie gras was so deliciously creamy that I finished all of my little piece quite easily and happily (until one of the girls remarked on how I was eating my morals...oh tasty, tasty morals). The soup was very smokey, and the shitake mushrooms were incredibly sweet, tasting far more like dried fruit than mushrooms.
The "Amelia Park lamb loin & shoulder" option was served Cascabel "El Sendero" Tempranillo 2008, McLaren Vale, SA. The herb crusted lamb and slow cooked shoulder were accompanied by peas, sliced broad beans and asparagus, layered potato cake and a madeira sauce.
Our next dish was the last complimentary bonus of the night, and was another standout dish - a tiny little chocolate torte with beetroot ice cream. We were all in raptures over this, and wished the serving was twenty times larger. The ice cream was lusciously creamy and smooth, the beetroot flavour was mild but present and paired beautifully with the light, soft. fluffy, fresh torte. It was also served with a matching teeny tiny cute spoon, which was just as well as it made it last longer.
Before the next dish arrived we were introduced to our first sticky wine of the evening - Verduzzo di Ramandolo DOCG 2006 Giovanni Dri, Friuli, Italy. It was soon followed by a "black pepper & strawberry pannacotta" which was a cool and creamy and vanillaey pannacotta underneath a layer of slightly tart strawberry jelly. While the pannacotta was studded with cracked pepper, which was also sprinkled on top and was found in a layer in the bottom of the glass, the pepper flavour was not overpowering. This dish was nice, and the flavour combination worked well, but I'm sure we all would have enjoyed it more had we not been spoiled by the greatness of the beetroot ice cream. Also, it was a little difficult to eat with a normal dessert spoon in the little glass, and we wished we still had our tiny torte spoons back.
Our next dish, accompanied by Passito di Pantelleria "Yanir" 2005 Mid Miceli, Italy, was certainly the most daring dish of the night, with a challenging mix of flavours. It was "mango, orange olive oil cake, candied olives, lavender ice cream" and the challenge was really due to the candied olives, as the olive flavour was still very strong in them despite the candying process. We agreed that the flavours did work surprisingly well together if you managed to have a piece of every component in your mouth at once, but I was the only one who ate all the olives. I could not detect the lavender in the ice cream, though it is possible that my palate was still in olive shock after popping an entire one in my mouth first thing to see what it was like. The citris glaze on the plate had a delicious tang to it, and the inclusion of pashmak always makes me smile, but overall this dish wasn't quite as impressive as we had been anticipating the main dessert dish to be. Also, I realise that serving these types of dish on a large flat plate looks very nice and allows for separation of the components, but trying to spoon melting ice cream off a large flat surface is annoying for a greedy person who wants to eat it all.
The final course of the evening was "Jackson's blend coffee & things" which we turned down as none of us felt like tea or coffee, but I now realise that by doing so we missed out on petits fours! The fools! Sure, this may well have been for the best we were pushing our stomachs to their limits already, but I am still riddled with regret.
In general, the food lived up to our high expectations and presented some interesting flavour combinations without being too challenging. All of the wines matched their dishes well, and I enjoyed them all despite not being able to recall any specifics about them. Although we were all certainly full after over three hours of eating and drinking, we had not passed into the realms of pain or nausea.
Service throughout the evening was polite and knowledgeable with a good degree of friendliness. Our dietary quirks (no game meats, no beef) were accommodated with a minimum of fuss, although I thought replacing the rabbit terrine with sliced avocado was a little lame. The best part about the service was walking to the toilets, as the path up to the back of the restaurant, where both the toilets and kitchen are, is fairly narrow and flanked by booths on one side and a wall on the other. Given how busy the restaurant is, it is apparently impossible to not encounter at least one waiter on your way to or from the toilet, and their ability to smoothly tuck themselves into a nook or cranny to allow you to pass freely was most impressive. Sorry George Calombaris, I can't remember what the hand cream situation was like.
I suspect that continued jetsetting, busy lives and lack of funds may mean it is again going to be a long time between degos for my friends and I, but I'm hoping we can squeeze in a few Miami Bakehouse visits in the meantime. Pie degustation anyone?
483 Beaufort Street, Highgate
Phone: 08 9328 1177
Opening hours: 7pm - late; Monday - Saturday