Restaurant Sanctuary, Pokolbin

What: Restaurant Sanctuary

Where: Peppers Guest House, Ekerts Road, Pokolbin

Prices: Lunch – entrees, $15 to $23; mains, $29 to $35; sides, $7 to $8.50; desserts, $20; dinner, $55 for two

courses, $75 for three courses; degustation, $95 per person

Chef: Michael Bolam

Wines: Mainly Hunter, other Australian, NZ, French, Italian and Spanish wines

Hours: Lunch 12.30pm to 3pm; dinner 7pm to 9pm, seven days

Vegetarian: Two dishes at dinner; one dish at lunch

Bookings: 4993 8999

Bottom line: Lunch for two, about $100 without drinks

Tables set with white linen, elegant cutlery and pristine glasses in the gracious dining room or on the shady verandah might lead you to think that Sanctuary is one of those places reserved for a very special occasion. But this is the Hunter Valley where the overall ambience is laid-back, even in places where you might expect stitched-up formality.

Your first encounter with waiting staff is one of professional informality, and chef Michael Bolam and his team work hard to ensure lunch and dinner guests receive the same skilfully prepared food. The lunch menu is an

abbreviated version of the dinner menu, and allows flexibility when it comes to choosing how much or little to have. Dinner is more formal with a more extensive a la carte and an optional degustation

The entree-sized Mandagery Creek venison receives the treatment such quality meat deserves as a carpaccio on an elongated white plate with a myriad of well-matched

accompaniments. In fact, it’s almost impossible to see the venison for the curls of finely shaved foie gras, see-through slices of radish, skinny enoki mushrooms, flower petals, halved green peas and marsala caviar (bronze-coloured pearls which burst to release the marsala

trapped inside).

Three labna-filled zucchini flowers are coated with a cobweb-fine tempura batter and perch on stems of sweet-corn puree springing from a garden bed of crunchy

pumpkin seeds, grated parmesan ‘‘soil’’ and tiny dried barberries. A sprinkling of sweetcorn succotash (a medley of corn kernels, diced tomato and diced green beans) brings colour and texture contrast.

The tempura batter on the soft-shell crab is just as light as on the zucchini flowers but suffers from being a little oily. A delightfully crunchy salad of shredded green mango,

pawpaw, Asian greens and hot/sweet/salty/sour nahm jim dressing brings some relief. Zigzags of vanilla emulsion streak another white plate. Wilted spinach, micro herbs and

crisp apple slices and walnut crumbs support boned, roasted quail, its succulent flesh protected by the crackling skin. More walnut crumbs are scattered across the plate.

At lunch the zucchini flowers, the soft-shell crab and the quail can be ordered in entree- or main-sized portions.

From the dessert list, ‘‘A Night at the Movies’ – iced popcorn, Sprite sorbet, honeycomb and Jaffa ganache – intrigues, but the daily changing selection of house-made ice-creams and sorbets appeals more.

Today’s selection is burnt-butter ice-cream, lemon and yoghurt ice-cream and three sorbets – raspberry, mango and kiwi fruit. The flavour and texture are almost upstaged by the presentation. A glass artist’s palette supports the five sorbets and their accompaniments; a square of fine brandy snap; spun toffee lattice; dark, milk, and white chocolate quills, streaks and dabs of raspberry and mango coulis; all are arranged to complement each quenelle-shaped scoop.

The view of roses and lawn in the foreground extending to vistas of languid kangaroos under drowsy gum trees in the distance tempts you to linger longer over lunch; one more

reason to make that promised trip to the Hunter Valley.

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