About to introduce Salopian Inn gin, Karena Armstrong ‘s McLaren Vale restaurant is still evolving after four-and-a-half years as the house gin joins other recent developments at one of the state’s best rural eateries.
As Salopian Inn’s chef and owner, Armstrong says she’s been “incredibly lucky” with her restaurant just south of the township of McLaren Vale on the way to Willunga. It was a risk to open a quality restaurant in regional SA almost five years ago that focussed on food, wine and spirits rather than the fit-out, which was kept casual.
“It was informal but it still had a sense of quality,” Armstrong says. “We spent a lot on the cellar not so much on tables, chairs and things like that.”
Armstrong wasn’t confident about opening a place back in her home patch after a career interstate at acclaimed restaurants such as the Lake House, Billy Kwong and Icebergs. It took a major decision by her husband Michael to be the catalyst.
“He quit his job — that was fairly major,” Armstrong laughs about the driver to opening her own place. “We tried to buy the Crafers pub. And it’s fallen into very good hands now. It’s a fantastic venue. The landlords here [The Salopian Inn] heard I was looking. It all fell into place. I still doubt many things I’m doing but I keep working on them and I get quite anxious but I think that’s a good quality in a chef or anyone creative.
“Michael said the dinners at home were just getting ridiculous [before opening The Salopian Inn]. I just kept cooking and playing. He said, ‘You’ve just to do it’. He could see it. I couldn’t see it. I definitely didn’t have the confidence to do it. This wouldn’t have happened without him. No way. But as I got into it, I felt more confident.”
(photo: Sia Duff)
Now, The Salopian Inn is one of McLaren Vale’s must-visit eateries. Armstrong uses seasonal and regional ingredients for her modern Australian menu with an Asian twist that has won much acclaim with popular menu items including the red-braised free-range duck and steamed Howie Hill free-range Berkshire pork buns. Armstrong was named as one of three Tasting Australia ambassadors for this year’s festival along with Ochota Barrels’ Taras Ochota and Fino’s Sharon Romeo and this year she will be the only chef who will judge the 2017/18 Hot 100 Wines show.
The reason for the accolades is that the Salopian Inn is a game changer. Aside from the menu, it featured a gin bar before gin became the tipple of choice.
“It really took off,” she says about the gin bar. “There are massive gin bars around Australia now. We’ve shifted our focus. We’re not buying imported gin so much anymore. There are so many good Australian ones now compared to four years ago.”
This will soon include a Salopian Inn gin, which sees them collaborate with Brendan and Laura Carter (Applewood, Ochre Nation, Unico Zelo) for Five Spice gin, based on Chinese five spices that are integral to some of the dishes on Salopian Inn’s menu.
“It’s been on my to-do list forever,” Armstrong says. “In the middle of this winter, I decided I really wanted to sell gin that tells our story. We had about 10 ideas for gin and we narrowed it down to this one, and then hopefully we get to do the other nine.
“I sat with Brendan, Laura and Alex, the restaurant manager, to talk what would fit here. So much of the food is based around the five spices and the duck dish has always had the Chinese five-spice element to it. We thought we’d do a gin to go with it.”
(photo: Sia Duff)
The gin, funnily enough, is called Five Spice and will be available at the restaurant and the Carters’ cellar door in Gumeracha. Another intriguing new element to Salopian Inn is a take-away menu as there is no “UberEATS down the Vale”.
“It’s pick-up. For 20 bucks you get a curry, vegetable and rice and some sort of bread. Last week we had oxtail that was braised down in a mole with fresh tortillas and a salad.”
Part of the reason for introducing a take-away menu is due to the fact that Armstrong’s philosophy is about using sustainable, free-range organic ingredients, which are expensive. The take-away element means they get more bang for their buck as the ingredients can be used for take-home items as well as the dining room.
“We’ve got really nice recycled bamboo and compostable packaging so we’re not sending out plastic when we’re doing it. I wanted to do it for a long time, but with Salopian quality. I wanted it to be ethical. I wanted it to be sustainable. I wanted it to be environmentally sensitive.”
A big part of Salopian’s ethos is based around the kitchen garden located at her property, not too far from the restaurant, which Armstrong admits costs a lot to run.
“My accountant looks at the books and goes, ‘Really, the garden, do you really need it?’ But the garden’s biggest benefit is that we can grow things we can’t buy. We have a system for using all of our green waste. There is no comparison to the freshness of the garden’s vegetables when it’s picked that morning and served that day.”
(photo: Jonathan van der Knaap)
Another benefit is that the kitchen staff feels connected to the garden. Armstrong says she has a high retention rate of chefs at the Salopian Inn and she believes the garden has a lot to do with it as it’s a “really engaged kitchen”.
“Everyone’s allowed free-range at my place; they’re allowed to have a look. A lot of my chefs have children; they can take them there to have a look. Maddie, the gardener, who’s worked for me for years now, she welcomes them. The chefs can go have a pick and see what’s going on.”
Armstrong’s experience at Alla Wolf-Tasker’s Lake House in Daylesford was fundamental to setting up her impressive kitchen garden.
“There was a real emphasis on picking. She was foraging for mushrooms before it was cool; it was just what she did. I got used to picking vegetables and I remember saying I would love to do this in the McLaren Vale. A year into the Salopian Inn, Michael said to me, ‘Let’s just dig out half our property. Let’s give it a go.’”
(photo: Sia Duff)
After the Lake House, Armstrong moved to Melbourne to work at the Wine Room with Karen Martini.
“Karen said, ‘I’m opening this restaurant in Sydney. Do you want to come?’ That was Icebergs. Then it was Billy Kwong [under Kylie Kwong] after that and bits of travelling and baking in-between. I was a baker for a while.”
Was Kylie Kwong an influence on the menu Armstrong would create for the Salopian?
“I’ve always loved Asian food. I’ve travelled to Asia and spend a lot of time there. I did that before I got to work with Kylie. When I got to Billy Kwong, a lot of the jigsaw puzzle pieces fit. And the way she ran a business. I would say that’s more what I learnt from Kylie, the way she treats staff. She’s a fantastic employer. I realised that kitchens didn’t have to be, not that the employers before were bad, but they could be really amazing as well, just that next level of being looked after.”
As part of Tasting Australia, Armstrong collaborated with another acclaimed Australian female chef, Alex Herbert, for Heroines Table.
“It was an interesting conversation about women in the industry; I now think we’ve got to the point where we just get on with it. What I always say is; hire better and treat women better when you hire them.”
Armstrong always had romantic notions about opening a place in McLaren Vale.
“The vision I always had in my head is this pretty much. The only thing I need to do is set-up the vegetable garden right there [adjacent to the restaurant]. The ultimate dream is a restaurant, garden, and everything together like the Lake House. That’s where I would really like to go but it’s tricky as all this land is owned by a family, who are lovely, but they are not about to sell it.”