I love this place, but it never crossed my mind that I might be able to do what I do, here in Newcastle," says Reserve Wine Bar's new head chef, Cory Campbell.
Campbell is a native Novocastrian who only ever wanted to “surf and travel”, and work in the mines to make that happen. A car accident changed all that and Campbell was forced to re-think his plans for the future. Fast-forward 19 years and Campbell has done some amazing things in the world of cooking and cuisine. After graduating from TAFE he did his apprenticeship under Jean Marc Pollet at the Anchorage, in Port Stephens, before working alongside fellow Novocastrian and chef, Brett Graham, at The Square, in London. He then went to work at Noma (before it was cool), working under René Redzepi, who is considered by his peers to be one of the best chefs in the world.
"Working at Noma was something so special to be apart of," says Campbell. "To see that momentum and energy from such a small group of chefs, so early on. Now Nordic cuisine has started to influence the world. The way I see it," he continues, "why can't we do something like that here, in Australia, even in Newcastle."
When Campbell returned to Australia he completed a six-year stint as head chef of the three-hatted fine-diner Vue de Monde, in Melbourne. Now, he's returned home and divides his time between manning the pans at One Two Seven on Darby St by day, and Reserve Wine Bar, by night.
Wine has never been a problem for the Reserve Wine Bar. Open since 2013, it has one of the largest and best wine lists in town. Want to try a magnum of Lake's Folly Cabernet from 1994? Or perhaps a premier cru pinot noir from Burgundy? Maybe you want to celebrate with a bottle of Billecart Salmon Champagne? There's much to choose from in the way of wine, which is a godsend in a city like ours; you can't move for good coffee, but you'll have to work harder to find the kind of fine wines that Patrick Haddock has on his list.
Except for when they first opened, when Jose Miguel was at the helm, the difficulty at Reserve Wine Bar has, typically, been the food. It was never bad, but it was never what it could be. Now, with Cory Campbell in command of the cuisine, the deep-fryer is gone and the wines have, at last, met their match.
"The menu is designed to be flexible for the wine bar atmosphere," says Campbell. "They're not big dishes, they're meant for sharing with friends over the course of an evening. Or, you can just have something small with a glass of wine and move on. We're not going for fine dining, but we do want to present beautiful, quality, and tasty food that pairs really well with the wines on the list," Campbell says.
If you've got the time to sit back and relax, then the 'Let us feed you' menu, with matching wines, is the way forward. Highlights include the Fraser Island Spanner crab and quail egg with dried apple 'leaves', which balances sweet and salty flavours with soft and crispy textures, and pairs effortlessly with a glass of (2010) Tyrrell's Stevens Semillon. Also, the steak tartare with crunchy cabbage flowers, again, contrasts textures and flavours in a dish that melts in your mouth, with a salty element that, weirdly, hits it off with Haddock's inspired pairing of the (2015) Grüner Veltliner from Hahndof Hill, South Australia. The most outstanding dish, however, is the winter pumpkin with crème fraiche and freshly grated truffle. Beautiful in its presentation, soft cubes of pumpkin are surrounded by fresh greens and flowers, and topped with subterranean fungus. It tastes like caramelised earth, if you can imagine such a thing.
"In terms of food and wine, Newcastle has progressed so far from when I first left," says Campbell. "It's really exciting to see, and one of the reasons I wanted to move back here. I want contribute to the buzz of the place and just be a part of it all."
Campbell has previously been quoted as saying he wants to open Newcastle's first three-hat restaurant. It's a bold statement, but one that is backed up by years of skill and experience.
"It's a challenge for me to want to aspire to something like that," says Campbell, "and I know it's not going to be easy. But the hardest thing, for me, is not trying. I want to see how far I can push myself, in Newcastle, because if I didn't, I'd always wonder."