Paul Wood travels south to McLaren Vale to feast at Maxwell Wines’ acclaimed restaurant Ellen Street.
There’s an air of hit historical drama Vikings at Maxwell Wines, wedged firmly into the side of a hill in McLaren Vale.
Roughly hewn timber chairs stand in front of a roaring limestone fireplace. Timber panelled ceilings reflect a dark clay tiled floor. A robust timber wine-tasting bench lines the far wall of the cellar door and panoramic windows overlook some of the region’s best vines. At the far end of this impressive building is the Ellen Street Restaurant, a grand dining hall full to the brim with culinary plunder. First to greet us for our long lunch is Ellen Street’s lady-in-charge, Jess Farghar.
She’s a quick-witted beauty, keeping control of the dining hall while making time to stop and chat to a raucous crowd of diners. Recommending the Street Experience degustation to make the most of our visit, she pours the first of many matched Maxwell wines and explains the way through today’s seven courses, selected by the kitchen based on seasonally available ingredients and some delightful sounding staples.
At only $75 for a feast that sounds fit for a king – and $25 for matched wines – it’s no wonder the place is booked out weeks in advance. A pillowy slice of bruschetta is served with local olive oil. Shiitake mushroom broth is transparent amber, topped with dreamy foam of cauliflower. The mushrooms are grown in a limestone cave beneath the winery, delivering a pungent earthy stock that plays on the prejudices of the senses. The level of complexity in what could have been a simple soup is an absolute delight on the palate.
House-made labneh is creamy and herbaceous, piled artistically between locally harvested baby vegetables – including heirloom carrots, fennel and petite Brussels sprout halves – so delicious they dissolve over-boiled childhood memories by the mouthful.
Fennel seeds are baked into a crispy lavosh bread, broken into shards to scoop a wonderful little blue swimmer crab mayonnaise topped with lumpfish caviar and white anchovy. The dish has a dominant oceanic flavour that seems strong on first bite but then dissipates to give way to the cleverly disguised flavour of chives. Perfectly rare saltbush lamb is delivered atop piles of purple kale. Capers in the accompanying salsa take saltiness right to the edge but added mint sweetens the dish, and pays subtle homage to a nostalgic combination of flavours.
Chief Viking Tom Boden spent his early years raiding the coasts of Great Britain before settling in Australia, and he certainly knows his stuff when it comes to the perfect cut of meat. His edible autograph arrives in the form of slow-cooked beef cheek – hints of citrus dance through tender flesh that falls apart with gelatinous delight. Each mouthful is a discovery of flavour, robust yet refined and presented in vegetal surrounds of crisp Brussels sprouts and nasturtium leaves.
And then from the halls of Valhalla, a dessert of stewed tamarillo topped with an oat crisp and an impeccable disc of marshmallow, lightly torched to achieve a caramelised texture. This is a dessert and flavour that will live on in memory long after it has touched your lips. It is tart, savoury and sweet, but not overly so.
A creation of Hayley White, Shield Maiden of desserts (and Sous-Chef at Ellen Street). Of course, having a winery at their beck and call gives the restaurant a treasure trove of drinks to prop up each of these dishes.
Elegant wines have strong character and explore not-so-typical flavours of the surrounding vale, just like their menu.
Ellen Street Restaurant
Corner of Olivers and Chalk Hill Roads, McLaren Vale
Open for lunch Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
Open for dinner on Friday nights during summer 8323 8200
Photos: Jonathan van der Knaap