Outside Sydney: New Heights for Blue Mountains Restaurants

  • Middleton’s seafood bouillabaisse with saffron potatoes and baby vegetables.

    Middleton’s seafood bouillabaisse with saffron potatoes and baby vegetables.

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Above: Kangaroo fillet at Silk’s Brasserie in the Blue Mountains.

Foodie-worthy cuisine is whetting appetites for Australia’s scenic Blue Mountains as never before

By Brian Johnston
Photography by Chris Chen

The white linen tablecloths are as starched as a nun’s wimple, the floor a pleasant checkerboard of black-and-white tiles, and the wooden chairs unpretentious–indeed, agreeably battered in places. From behind the bar comes the satisfying thunk of cork leaving a wine bottle and the low-volume crooning of Patricia Kaas. Yet while mademoiselle might be singing the blues, the menu is a merrier ode to the rustic ideals of brasserie food: Provençal fish soup, lamb’s brains, crepes filled with smoked ham and Gruyère.

Something is just a little odd about this Gallic vignette, however. As my eye wanders down the menu, I spot Moroccan-style lamb and chicken served with bok choy and shiitake mushrooms. As for Stewart, my chatty waiter, he serves not Parisian disdain but casual conversation, as if I’ve bumped into a former acquaintance. Before long, I know that the 1905 building housing Silk’s Brasserie was once a greengrocer. “The name’s got nothing to do with horse racing or lawyers,” Stewart quips. “Silk was the previous owner; it’s quite a common surname around here.”

Around here is not Paris but the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, some 70 kilometers west of Sydney. A century and more ago, this region–a sandstone plateau carved into dramatic escarpments and gorges–provided a fashionable colonial-style escape from the heat of the coast. Then Australians discovered the beach, and the Blue Mountains, as old-fashioned as buttered crumpets and Enid Blyton, became a destination mostly for Japanese tourists and pensioners on outings.

All that is changing now, with new hotel developments promising glamour and a forward-looking food scene changing the rolled eyes of Sydneysiders to raised eyebrows. “There’s more awareness of fresh, local produce and slow food now,” Stewart the waiter explains. “You can see it in better restaurants, delis, and new farm stores. Now foodies come for the weekend or stop over on their way to the Orange or Mudgee wine regions.”

So far, I’m impressed. My bratwurst with mashed potatoes is proof that Silk’s Brasserie rises to the challenge of making simple food taste outstandingly good, though it’s a shame there’s no bread, French style, to mop up the gravy. Still, that leaves me room for dessert, which is another winner: an orange-and-almond pudding in cardamom syrup, served with crème fraîche.

I roll out of the restaurant and down the cherry tree-lined main street of Leura village. Dessert may have been a mistake, because my next stop, Josophan’s Fine Chocolates, is only meters away. The aroma of cocoa envelops me like a hug as I step inside.

Raven-haired owner Jodie van der Velden readily admits that she’s obsessed with traditional handmade chocolate, which she makes on the premises. She also hosts chocolate-appreciation workshops here. “It’s my mission to convert people to eating quality chocolate in smaller quantities,” she says. “Try this”–offering me a piece of regular supermarket chocolate–“And now, this!” The honey-and-lavender ganache of her truffles lingers on my mouth like a kiss.

“Ganache” wasn’t a word bandied about much in the Blue Mountains of a decade ago, but one thing remains unchanged: the region’s magnificent landscape. I resolve to walk off my overindulgence by following the cliff-top trail from Leura to Katoomba, a two-hour hike through stands of eucalyptus inhabited by shrieking king parrots. Waterfalls drift away in spray, sprinkling the lush patches of rain forest that erupt unexpectedly in hidden gullies. A thousand meters or so above sea level, the air is cool and crisp.

Middleton’s seafood bouillabaisse with saffron potatoes and baby vegetables.

In Katoomba, founded as a resort town in the 1870s, a lingering Art Deco elegance is edged out by tourist bustle and scruffy pubs. Still, the views are sublime, and it’s easy just to sit on the terrace of my hotel room nursing a gin-and-tonic with a twist of considerable satisfaction.

It may be the mountain air or just the second gin, but laziness compels me to remain at Echoes Boutique Hotel for dinner, especially when I see that the restaurant offers dizzying sunset vistas. A brief survey of the menu reveals even more about the region’s culinary pretensions. An entrée of seared yellow-fin tuna? Tick for its rather unexpected pairing with lemon goat’s curd. A main of double-roasted duck with poached apple? Better than anything in the Blue Mountains years ago, though a little uninspired for a signature dish. Never mind: the trio of crème brûlées–coffee and Kahlua, Tahitian vanilla, white chocolate–is a marvel.

The next morning, I continue westward to Medlow Bath, where the huge, Edwardian-era Hydro Majestic Hotel is being restored. For the moment, the reason to stop is Brown Siding Café, housed in a pseudo-cottage that was once the Hydro Majestic’s garage. Owner Kerry Caloyannidis began here over a decade ago with a company called Whisk & Pin, whose outstanding mueslis and cookies became de rigueur among upmarket Sydney cafés. That business has been recently sold off, but Caloyannidis’s celebrated café remains. Offering open sandwiches, scones, and salads, the menu might recall the tired old teahouses that still linger in the Blue Mountains, but there the similarity ends. Sandwiches have fillings such as seared, spiced tuna with braised leek and aioli, and though I opt for simple zucchini bread with aged cheddar and tomato chutney, it’s a little plate of perfection.

From here, it’s an hour’s drive to Wolgan Valley in the western reaches of the Blue Mountains. Just over halfway at Lidsdale, the Jannei Goat Dairy provides an excuse to stretch my legs. It takes a bit of hollering before owner Janette Watson appears to explain that she took over the farm with her husband Neil in 1995 with the aim of producing goat’s milk and fresh-pressed chèvre. Now their 100 Swiss goats–snowy white and frisky in the paddock nearby–are also the source of mature cheeses such as Chevrotin, cheddar, and Camembert. I make off with a crottin-style cheese that can be dried out and grated onto pasta.

Back on the road, I’m soon plunging into Wolgan Valley, a scenic slice of backcountry wedged between two national parks. The Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa is a Blue Mountains version of an African safari lodge where luxury, lap pools, and leather armchairs meet Australian bush. Meals are included in the room rate, as are activities, which is just as well: I need plenty of mountain biking and horseback riding to work off epic breakfasts and six-course degustation dinners (eaten as evening falls, wallabies hop, and the Milky Way shimmers).

One bite of squab tortellini in mushroom broth reveals that food alone is reason to make the trek out here. “We do our best to source from organic farms and private growers in the mountains or nearby regions,” says chef Dwane Goodman. “The venison is from Mandagery Creek near Orange, Ormiston free-range pork comes from Mudgee, and our honey from the Central Tablelands.”

I suspect the spanner crab must come from farther afield but, with its avocado puree, orange segments, and sprinkling of dainty micro herbs, the dish is both pretty and delicious. The strawberry sorbet that follows as a palate cleanser has a burst of purple basil that is as inspired as it is unexpected. Then comes pan-seared barramundi and, to round it all off, baklava in berry consommé.

Two days later, after a passing temptation to remortgage my house in Sydney and move to the Wolgan for a month, I head back home. There are only two roads across the Blue Mountains; avoiding the main highway, I instead take Bells Line of Road, a scenic route that passes over Mount Tomah before easing into Kurrajong Heights. Here, I stop at a delightful little restaurant called Lochiel House. Dating from 1825, the cottage has creaking floorboards and critically acclaimed food that typifies what Mod Oz cuisine is all about: fresh local produce combined with influences from the far corners of the globe by playfully inventive chefs.

I tuck into a light dashi custard with a smoky, silken texture to complement the stronger flavors of smoked eel and enoki mushrooms. It comes in a simple Japanese bowl decorated with a sprig of maple leaves. Arigato and congratulations, chefs Monique Maul and Anthony Milroy: thanks to talents like theirs, the Blue Mountains is finally a place for foodies.

THE DETAILS:
THE BLUE MOUNTAINS

Getting There
From Sydney, it’s a 50-minute drive along the M4 Motorway to Glenbrook, gateway to the Blue Mountains. There’s also a regular double-decker train service to Katoomba, a two-hour trip.

Where to eat
** Brown Siding Café: 1 Railway Parade, Medlow Bath; 61-2/ 4788-1555.
** Lochiel House: 1259 Bells Line of Road, Kurrajong Heights; 61-2/4567-7754.
** Silk’s Brasserie: 128 The Mall, Leura; 61-2/4784-2534.
** Echoes Restaurant: 3 Lilianfels Ave., Katoomba; 61-2/4787-1966.

Where to Shop
** Jannei Goat Dairy: 8 View St., Lidsdale; 61-2/6355-1107; jannei.com.
** Josophan’s Fine Chocolates: 132 The Mall, Leura; 61-2/4784-3833; josophans.com.au.

Where to Stay
** Echoes Boutique Hotel & Restaurant: 3 Lilianfels Ave., Katoomba; 61-2/4787-1966; echoeshotel.com.au; doubles from US$530.
** Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa: 2600 Wolgan Valley Rd.; 61-2/ 9290-9733; wolganvalley.com; doubles from US$2,090.

Originally appeared in the August/September 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Out of the Blue”)

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