EXPERIENCE, experiment, expertise, exploration, expression, exposure, expedition, expect, explode . . . so many appropriate words distilled into the name of this new venture, EXP. Restaurant, by one of the Hunter's most exciting young chefs, Frank Fawkner, his restaurant manager, Danielle Doffay, and their talented young team.
This is another example of handing the baton on to the next generation. Fawkner, fresh from two-hat Muse (SMH Good Food Guide), joins the growing band of Hunter chefs who have been nurtured by the likes of Troy Rhoades-Brown (Muse), who in turn was nurtured by Robert Molines (Bistro Molines). These young chefs could have the world at their feet, but choose to stay in the region and create a unique environment. I can't think of any other wine region in Australia with such a large number of quality restaurants.
Helen Stronach's wonderful ceramics and Mark Aylward's sawn-log tables provide a suitable backdrop to food that is always playful, never serious but expertly executed. You will be exposed to Jeff Grant's artwork adorning the walls, as well as locally produced garlic, coffee and wines while exploring the restaurant's own garden outside the windows.
Don't expect the usual formula of entree, main, dessert - you may embark on your own expedition, or let the team design a seven-course degustation just for you from the list of Earth, Sea, Land and Sky, Cheese and Sweets.
Express yourself and start with dessert if you wish - just remember the minimum service is two courses per person ($45). Plates are similar in size, although the meat courses will be more filling than those listed as Earth.
Bread and herb butter? Experiment with a mortar and pestle containing fresh herbs in a cloud of liquid nitrogen "smoke", so cold they shatter. Easy to pound to a fragrant powder to blend with softened butter and spread thickly on the house-made bread roll.
Menu descriptions are deceptively terse and far more than the sum of their parts.
Salty, house-made haloumi creates a counterpoint to cider-sweetened, tarragon-infused carrot puree, finely sliced raw carrot, discs of cooked carrot and smoky olive.
Black garlic, prepared by fermenting garlic in cider for a week, accompanies a creamy textured risotto topped with wafers of pickled cauliflower, grated Pyengana cheddar from Tasmania and a scattering of nasturtium petals.
Fennel so fine you can see through it, arranged like wings on a bird in flight, hover above two comma-shaped pieces of just-cooked ocean trout, feather-light potato gnocchi and a citrus dressing on a sky-blue plate.
A quenelle of spicy pureed eggplant with tender braised lamb and sticky jus explores a Middle Eastern theme, enhanced by a puddle of tangy yoghurt and bright pink pomegranate arils.
Warm blue cheese, brioche, honey, marigold - words don't do justice. The lid on a "pot" of honey-glazed brioche lifts to expose a core of melted blue cheese. Again, Frank has the salt/sweet balance just right.
There are just three desserts. I want to explore them all but make do with just one.
Passionfruit, dark chocolate, parfait, basil, toffee. Sounds simple? Two hemispheres of fine chocolate mimic passionfruit shells, filled with creamy parfait topped with passionfruit syrup. Toffee comes two ways; as a praline "soil" and pulled into twisty twigs with basil leaves refreshing the palate and the eye.
Come soon and explore, experience, experiment while Frank and his team express their passion in foods of the season.
What: EXP. Restaurant, Oakvale Winery, 1596 Broke Road, Pokolbin; 49987264; exprestaurant.com.au.
Chef: Frank Fawkner.
Wines: Mainly Oakvale wines, mostly Hunter grapes but some from other regions; 11 by the glass, including two sparkling, two dessert/fortified.
Hours: Lunch/dinner, Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 3pm and 6pm to 9pm; lunch on Sunday, noon to 3pm.
Vegetarian: Three ‘‘Earth’’ plates; cheese course.
Bottom line: Two courses, $45 per person; three courses, $60 per person; four courses, $70 per person; seven course degustation, $100 per person.
Wheelchair access: Yes.
Do try: Ocean trout, potato gnocchi, citrus and fennel.