Saturday, August 9, 2014

Things that start with B. Bowral, Berrima, Berry and ...

In just under 2 hours drive from Sydney you can be in the gorgeously green and mist shrouded southern highlands. I love to head down this way during winter (need I remind you, it's my favourite season) as the area has the most perfectly romantic snuggle-by-the-fire kinda vibe.  
At the recommendation of a friend we stopped off at Berrima on the way to check out the charming Bendooley Estate (owned by the Berkelouw Book people). That's a couple more B's just in case you were counting. 
We spent some time wandering through their bookbarn and there are a few pre-loved prizes in there I can tell you - I just wish we'd gone down to the back of the property to the rare book shed!! But hey, we were hungry - and it was lunchtime.    And we'll head back another time for sure - on a weekend when the cellar door is open!
The menu offered everything from snacks to more hearty fare as you can see from above and we went for the middle of the road with a margarita pizza and a bowl of fregola with mushrooms, truffle butter, thyme, fennel and pistachio (the chestnuts as advertised on the menu were not available - which was a shame but it was still darn good).
We even had the company of Sir Geoffrey Rush and Lady Robyn Nevin. Well they were at the next table. That's close enough to be brushed with fame right?  
The 'Historic Town of Berrima' was definitely worth strolling around - there are some wonderful old buildings including the gaol and courthouse, handsome church and a fabulous old pub but for the most part it felt fairly touristy to me. Also quite a few places seemed to be closed on a Tuesday. 
As the afternoon sunlight was fading fast we drove onwards to our destination for the evening - Bowral. We checked in at Biota (Dining and Rooms), took a brisk walk around town until our fingers turned to ice, then drove around the local area checking out some of the beautiful estates.  Too dark for many pics sorry! - but I did love the look of this antique place in the heart of Bowral - too bad it was shut)
So back at Biota we headed straight for the bar for a pre-dinner drink - by the aforementioned fire. The staff couldn't be more friendly or helpful. After I'd expressed an interest in the pineapple sage from their garden they made sure the very last of it went in my cocktail - delightful.  
We moved into the dining room to commence our 5 course dego. I'll confess it was with the mildest trepidation after reading some mixed reviews - however seeing that most of my friends and colleagues had in fact given very positive reviews I went in with a commitment to keeping an open mind. 
 And was more than impressed. Chef James Viles' food is creative, experimental, handsomely presented, technically spot on  - and with a range of flavours that jump from punchy to subtle then back again. A couple of the dishes were quite unctuous and rich (the lamb for example) and only really sung  for me when married with the matching wine  which gave a nice hit of acidity  - so I highly recommend going down that route.  The wine matches are all very clever and bloody delicious.
Salmon jerky to start - I'm not actually a fan of salmon unless it's raw but this was a great way to whet the appetite - salty, meaty and reminded me a little of really great salt cod.

The house-smoked butter, for spreading over their warm wholewheat sourdough, totally rocked my world. I couldn't get enough of it. And I loved the serving of it too- the butter on a stone with a cut to hold the knife and the bread on a little hessian cushion  - which reminded me of an old fashioned potato sack. 
Storm clam, roe, charcoal. Bright flavours and textures that pop and crunch. The clams come to the table on a separate plate and you eat them at your discretion.
The next course was cooked curds, rye, hen yolk. Buttery, nutty, salty, toasty. Give me this for breakfast any day.
Lamb breast, sheep milk curd and oats. 
Duck breast, cauliflower, pine needles, white raisins
And for dessert. Chocolate, pear and apple  - which was served with a fabulous apple cider dessert wine. What a  fun dessert.
We chose the 5 course menu but there is also a 7 course version. 
And a wee tipple by the fire to end proceedings. 
As the girl at the front desk said to me - the rooms at Biota are 'really just an extension of the dining experience'. A place to stay if you come to dine. Although the food is high-end - the accommodation is more relaxed (but stylish all the same!) so I'd advise people go with that in mind -and note that it is VERY convenient not to have to drive to your hotel post meal! 
The rooms seem to be converted from an old motel so they are rather compact. The bathrooms are new and streamlined.  The decor was simple but clever - with a Scandi feel - which I love!  Especially in cold weather.  I so wanted to steal the chookwire light shades and the sheepskin covered chair but they wouldn't fit in my luggage. 
The place was clean, the bed was comfortable, you can make yourself a cuppa or watch telly if that's your thing - what else do you need for a night's stay? And at a very reasonable cost.  

We really enjoyed the whole package - the dining experience, the drinks by the fire, the service and the 3 second walk to our bed. 
After a final look around Bowral then a drive to Bundanoon - yet another B - we made our way to Berry. 
The weather was rather miserable, grey, cold and rainy with very few sunny glimpses and after a wander around town we decided to take a short drive to the coast as we had plenty of time to kill before we could check into our B&B. First to  Seven Mile Beach  - below.
 then onto Gerroa and Black Head below

Back in Berry late afternoon we stopped for a snack at the Berry Sourdough Cafe which is always a necessary stop when in town and it wasn't yet 4pm when the skies looked like this...
We wound our way up the hill to our accommodation for the evening  - The Drawing Rooms of Berry.
How stunning is this place? Only 8 minutes up the mountain from Berry town is this idyllic hideaway. So very peaceful all you can hear is birdcall and the rustling of leaves in the breeze. You have a choice of accommodation type and we chose to stay in the extremely comfortable B&B which is just adjacent the main house and has a separate entrance so you are not actually traipsing through someone else's living quarters.  
On the occasion we stayed (mid week) there was no-one else in the room opposite us so it was like having a small ski chalet to ourselves.  Our room was upstairs to the right of the building on the right hand side of the owner's house and home .

Room with a view. 

 And this  - from the little deck off to the side of our room.

After a restorative nap we were heading back down to town for dinner at the FABULOUS South on Albany - owned by a colleague and friend Sonia Greig and her lovely hubby - chef John Evans - both of them are extremely talented and I knew we were going to be in for a treat. 
It was a cold night but the restaurant was so wonderfully cosy you would never have known. The atmosphere was perfect for us and felt very romantic/date nightish  - but there was a mixed crowd  and quite a few larger tables too - everyone there for the promise of a great time and warm hospitality. My one complaint - and it isn't a genuine one - is that the lighting was so deliciously low that it made getting decent pics of the food rather difficult... And as such, I have not done the dishes justice because, believe me, everything was superbly presented and if this was scratch and sniff or lick-o-gram you'd already be picking up the phone to make a booking! Although I think they've been fairly well packed since they opened just over a year ago so get in early!
The service was brilliant and not just because  Sonia  runs front of house - the other staff were all so completely charming - friendly, down to earth and onto it.  This is the kind of restaurant you wish was your local - the food isn't tricksy - it's just right and the flavours and techniques all completely on the mark. It is not often that you eat at a place where everything is so well balanced - clever chap that John Evans.  Contemporary cuisine with traditional French/Euro roots for the most part.  There's a real honesty in his cuisine, so much so it feels nurturing  - it's a difficult thing to master  -it really has to come from within. 
We started with a couple of oysters with an excellent citrus and eschallot vinaigrette and the most kick-arse pate I've eaten in a very long time with pear chutney and toasted sourdough.
The 'soy and mirin infused local king fish, pickled daikon, radish, elk leaf, fennel dressing and dashi' was light n zippy but balanced by umami depth. 
Stoney Creek pork rillettes with granny smith apple dressing, herb salad and grilled baguette - deelish - and who could resist those tiny slivers of perfect crackling.... oh my
For mains we chose the Cassoulet above - such  great rendition - a little lighter than most but somehow more deeply satisfying.   And the pink roasted rump of veal with divine mash,  roasted brussels sprouts, chestnuts and red wine jus was another perfect choice on a winter's night.
For dessert (no we didn't really have any room but the food had been so good... and who knows how long it will be until we can get back again so... you do what you gotta do) we had the Praline parfait, pear, rhubarb, crumble and the Chocolate mousse, vanilla ice cream, espresso, honeycomb. And no prizes for guessing how good they were. Amen. 
Oh and before I forget - the local wines, which Sonia chose for the meal were all excellent. Thanks Sonia, John and crew for a fantabulous dinner. Well done- you have a cracking little restaurant there. 

And back up the winding hill we trotted in the dark -  to our huge and extremely comfortable bed at the Drawing Rooms. But before we retired we stood out in the dark -gazing up into the night sky - I've never seen so many stars and the milky way was clearly visible - breathtaking. 

In the morning we came downstairs to this
Fresh and stewed fruit, cereal, yoghurt, toast and condiments and a table set for two - with sweeping views 

Had we come home earlier (or stayed longer) we certainly would have enjoyed relaxing in one of these charming downstairs areas - probably the one by the fire  - thoughtfully stocked with a range of music. Oh and the main house has books and dvd's for borrowing too.
 The people who own The Drawing Rooms are the nicest folk and excellent hosts- we chatted to them for so long they probably didn't think we were ever going to leave. We felt like we'd made new friends - the kind you know will be in your lives a long time and it is without a doubt we will be back.  Hopefully for longer next time -  I'd love to stay in the Villa specially kitted out for a long, luxurious stay or return with friends and stay in one of the lodges. 
We farewelled Berry on the most stunning day. 
 And stopped in Kiama for Fish and Chips on the way home... what a charming seaside town.
 Naturally we had to visit the famous Kiama blowhole (another B highlight!!) - can't believe I've never been before!

Do yourself a favour - if you haven't been down to the southern highlands or the south coast for a while  - take a drive. We  were away 2 nights and felt like we'd been away for a week. And no, I'm not being  paid to write this  - if I was I'd be a lot less lazy with  my words! I save the more clever stuff for clients!  (at least I hope it's more clever...) This blog is just about sharing and I post only when I can find a spare moment  -which is why this is going to air  several weeks after the fact. No boss, no deadlines. woo hoo! 

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