Even though it’s been a good 15 years since I left the Hunter Valley, this laid-back wine region still feels like home. And while I could happily spend my days at Mum and Dad’s kitchen table, playing spot-the-kangaroo, grazing on Katie’s ever-present cheese board and knocking back heavy-handed gin and tonics, you never have to twist my arm to visit the wineries nearby.
There are more than 120 cellar doors and scores of restaurants in the Hunter Valley (some more visit-worthy than others…), but in recent years the go-to has become Muse Kitchen at Keith Tulloch Wine. Keith’s wife Amanda used to work for interiors whiz Laura Ashley, so as you can imagine the decor at the cellar door and restaurant is bang-on. With its creamy timber facade, deep verandahs, rich woods and cherry-picked furnishings, it’s a clever blend of Hamptons beachhouse meets French Provincial farmhouse.
The tasting experience here is one of the standouts in the Hunter Valley. Rather than queuing like cattle at the counter, you can take your pick of breeze-blessed tables on the balcony or cosy lounges by the fireplace inside. The wines are brought to you one at a time, so you have the opportunity to linger over each glass and fully appreciate the Keith Tulloch range.
The semillon is always stellar (I blame my Hunter upbringing for my love of taut, citrus-bright young whites), and on this trip we also tried Keith’s 2013 The Wife, a supple shiraz viognier blend – at just 13.8% alc, it’s way less in your face than your typical Hunter shiraz, indicative of a general shift away from the “sweaty-saddle”, fruit-forward reds of the past. We stocked up on a few bottles for Christmas, then wandered over to Muse Kitchen for lunch.
Husband-and-wife team Troy and Megan Rhoades-Brown opened Muse Kitchen in 2012 as a casual offshoot to their two-hat Muse Restaurant at Hungerford Hill. There’s an easy elegance to the food here – Troy’s technique is precise and his ingredients are carefully selected, but everything comes together in a relaxed, accessible way. We kicked off with platters of smoked trout rillettes and duck liver paté, accompanied by cornichons, pickled beetroot and crunchy toasts that were topped up as we needed them, paired with the first of many bottles of Keith Tulloch’s easy-drinking rosé.
With eight of us at the table, we managed to make a decent dent in the short lunch menu. I opted for a main serving of the handmade gnocchi. The pan-fried, thumb-sized gnocchi were tossed with flecks of spanner crab, ribbons of shaved asparagus and heirloom tomatoes, bathed in a deeply flavoured shellfish butter with a hint of chervil to lighten things up.
All of the main courses seemed a tad heavy that day, so Mum also upsized an entree. She selected the chargrilled prawns with broad beans, fennel and beurre blanc, which arrived as five hefty prawns on a bed of vibrant greens. I’m not sure it would have been enough to satisfy me, but Mum was happy with the size, even offloading some of the prawns to Dad and me.
The dish that caused the most murmurs of food envy at the table was Sarah and Carla’s lamb shoulder for two. The slow-cooked Milly Hill lamb came slathered in a punchy romesco (roast capsicum and almond) sauce, with sides of duck fat potatoes and a cleansing apple, quinoa and cabbage salad. Even after we all took a stab at the lamb, there was still plenty of food leftover. Fabulous value at $78 for the whole shebang.
Simon and his dad settled on the pork, egged on by our misguided guarantee that it would definitely come with crackling (when does slow-roasted pork not come with crackling?!). Brian looked a tad cheated when it arrived sans its crunchy shell, but it was still a tasty little package. The pork was fork-tender and served with creamy celeriac remoulade, a sticky jus and a handful of crisp butter beans and sugar-snap peas.
And lastly, Billy tucked into the lamb special, blushing-pink slices of rump with charred Jerusalem artichokes, a lick of jus and the sweet pop of red grapes. With entrees at $22 and mains hovering around the $36 mark, prices are high – yet pretty standard for the Hunter Valley. But thankfully that seriously slurpable Keith Tulloch rosé comes in at just $24 a bottle, adding value to an excellent meal.
Read Troy and Megan’s guide to the region in the Delicious Magazine Hunter Valley Locavore article.