WILLOW Tree isn’t a huge place. It’s a little town that pops up just after you leave Murrurundi and head over the Great Dividing Range and into New England. After a leisurely drive from Newcastle, and a coffee stop in Muswellbrook, we roll into town around 12.30pm. Perfect timing for lunch at the Willow Tree Inn.
It’s not our first time here, and because of the fantastic meal we had last time, we thought we’d make the effort to visit again. This time there’s also a great bakery and gourmet cafe.
Located in the heart of the town, the Willow Tree Inn is the hub of activity. It features a central bar, cute cabin accommodation, and the Graze restaurant and bistro. People come from far and wide to visit the only drinking hole in town and for good reason.
The food served here is real, rustic and fresh, despite being miles from anywhere. The reason for this is simple. The bulk of the produce is supplied by Colly Creek Farms, just two kilometres away. There is a dry-ageing room where the recently arrived black angus carcasses are on display. This is a place for enjoying meat-focused dishes, done well.
There are two rooms for dining at the inn - the more formal restaurant area, and the less formal bistro also know as the Grain Store. There's also an outdoor patio to enjoy a beer and to bask in the sun. Watch the trains roll by with the mountains of the Great Dividing Range behind you – it really is quite lovely. The bistro area is reminiscent of Roberts for me - warm wood and chandeliers and the aromas of the cooking in the walls. There is a full a la carte menu or a board of simple and cheaper pub classics such as Colly Creek corned beef, a steak sandwich, a beef burger, a red thai chicken curry, a char-grilled Caesar salad and a grilled chicken burger. We stick to the a la carte and by the time we're eating our entree, the room is filling up nicely.
A Colly Creek beef carpaccio is an easy way to warm up to the richer, heartier meals that follow. The thinly-sliced beef is so incredibly fresh and delicate. It’s served with pinenuts, peppery rocket, pecorino and truffle oil. Like the area and surrounding farms, this is a dish grounded in earth: the salty cheese, the heady truffle, the roasted pinenuts, and of course, the meat. The beef is melt-in-your-mouth fresh and the flavour is so subtle. The texture is soft and lustrous. The colour is luminous. It’s a joy to eat.
The mains arrive soon afterwards. At a place which honours its beasts so much, I can’t go past a lamb shank. It arrives in all its glistening glory (from the rich red wine and mushroom sauce oozing over it) atop a scoop of creamy mash potato. The meat falls off the bone with the gentlest touch. It is a huge serving – perfect for hungry farmers and big appetites and every mouthful is so good.
The Graze potted pie is a more temperate approach to the meat-based dishes. A flaky pastry top encloses a stew of diced Colly Creek beef with bacon, red wine, mushrooms and a side of that great mash. The menu also features half a chicken with creamed leeks, twice-cooked pork belly or crispy skinned barramundi for those who aren’t hard-core carnivores.
But for those wanting a slab of meat, try one of the steak offerings: rump steak, sirloin on the bone, T-bone, rib eye (as 800g or 1kg portions), or go all out with a chateaubriand. Steaks are served with chips or jacket potatoes and a range of sauces – brandy and pepper, creamy mushroom, chimichurri. This is pub food turned up a notch and flavours to impress.
Service here is attentive, friendly and polite and keeps up with the kitchen.
A great amount of respect is shown to the animals here and the kitchen knows what its regulars want – tasty, hearty fare with a good drop on the side. Lucky there’s always room at this inn.
- What: Graze restaurant and Grain Store Bistro at the Willow Tree Inn
- Where: New England Highway, Willow Tree
- Chef: Sabi Pabla
- Hours: Lunch Friday – Sunday; Dinner Thursday – Saturday
- Drinks: Australian focus – $34-165 per bottle.
- Vegetarian: 1 entree, 1 main. plus sides.
- Wheelchair: Yes
- Bottom line: Entree, main and dessert each – $140, not including drinks.
- Do try: Melt-in-your-mouth meat: carpaccio, steak, lamb.