Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Jackson's, Highgate, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

A changing of the guard seems to be happening in Perth. Last year saw Alain Fabrègues close The Loose Box after 34 years as a giant of the fine dining scene, and 2013 ended with the equally sad announcement that Neal Jackson would be selling his eponymous restaurant after 15 years as one of Perth's most consistently well regarded restaurants. 

A lot has changed in 15 years, and the increasingly tough competition at the very top of Perth's scene must have be stressful for a head chef. While being the restaurant that introduced the degustation to Perth, last year say Jackson's announce its final 'Dego' before switching to a very on-trend bar/share plate menu at the front of the restaurant, while still offering a la carte. Met with protests by longtime fans, Jackson's brought back the degustation for a series of three 4-week long menus called the Limited Edition Dego before closing, offering Perth diners one last chance to dine at a restaurant that has done so much to raise the standards of cooking in Perth. Having been on Alissa's list of restaurants to try for 6 years, it was any easy task to convince her we had to go - especially considering we'd missed out on the Loose Box last year. 

Upon entering the restaurant, Jackson's reminded me a lot of the very contemporary design style of Iggy's in Singapore. The table across the way from us featured a discofied sculpture of a bull's head made of mirrors set against the classy, minimalist monochrome aesthetic of the space.

A meal like this is also a great chance to catch up for some good conversation with good friends, and Alissa and I were joined on this occasion by semi-regular dining buddies Trevor and Annaliese. You'll probably see them again in later posts.

As we were seated and perused the wine list, we got a chance to have a look at our menus for the evening - Limited Edition Dego #2: Surf 'n Turf, 'a selection of dishes from [Jackson's] early days'. After selecting the intriguing sounding 2012  Didi ‘Piniolo’ Pinot Noir Nebbiolo as our wine for the evening, we were ready to go.

While waiting for the amuse bouche, the customary bread basket was brought out featuring a selection of interesting bread options.

I decided to go with a cheese-encrusted roll first. The bread was nice and soft on the inside, with the cheese crust offering a nice umami kick. It was very good, but didn't compare with the absolute best bread I've had at Otto e Mezzo Bombana and Caprice.

Chinese spoons containing a taster of Orange, Fennel and Anchovy served as our Amuse Bouche. The clean, sweet acidity of the orange worked with in its every-trustworthy pairing with fennel, and the anchovy's salty-umami intensity gave it that extra kick. A good palate cleanser and start to the meal. 

Drunken Chicken & Prawn with Cucumber Noodle Salad was our first course, and was unfortunately a bit of a mixed bag. The strongest element of the dish was the cucumber noodle salad. I love the flavour of cucumber but dislike its texture when its cut thickly. Its presentation here as 'noodles' with a lovely Chinese-style dressing rich in sesame flavour was very much to my liking - something I'd like to try at home. I however cannot speak as highly of the prawns and chicken. Both were poached in Shaoxing wine, and based on the slightly cottony texture of the prawn I felt it had been in a bit too long. Additionally, the thought may have been that the salad dressing provided enough saltiness for the entire dish, however I felt the chicken could really have done with some low level brining as it bordered on being a bit bland. This was not exactly a bad dish, but I expect a bit more from a restaurant of Jackson's stature.

Thankfully any concern that this meal would prove to be a disappointment was abated by the next course - Roast Pork Belly, Black Pudding & Seared Scallop with Spiced Apple & Honey Sauce. It was the dish that most spoke to us when we read the menu, and  it was as good as it sounds. Presentation was beautiful, and the pork and scallops were cooked perfectly, and the accompanying flavours of apple and black pudding were highly complimentary - I could not fault this dish. Though this was a throwback featuring dishes from their early days, a look at the final form of the Dego on other blogs reveals that the basic idea of pork, black pudding and apple was so successful that it was still being played around with in 2013.

The next course served was Ocean Trout Confit, Rabbit Sauce & Mushy Peas. Basically oil-poached trout, the fish was a served rare which highlighted the freshness and quality of the trout. The rabbit sauce was basically a rabbit ragu, and it was flavoursome without being overly gamey. I'm not usually a fan of mushy peas but being cooked here by a restaurant brigade of this level, it was very nice indeed. That said, while everything was cooked with a lot of skill and faultless in its execution, it was probably less memorable than the pork it preceded, and the beef dish that would come after. I think part of the reason for this is that a dish like this is perhaps a bit dated, which is understandable considering this was a 'greatest hits' meal of sorts.

As the main for the evening, Roast Beef Fillet, Braised Beef Cheek & Jacko's Oyster Sauce with Truffle Potato Mash & Beans knocked it out of the park. I'm not the biggest fan of beef (and have some environmental objections to cattle farming) but this was a dish that highlighted how great this protein can be. The beef fillet was either cooked sous-vide or more conventionally through immense skill/black magic as it was a lovely medium rare almost from top to bottom. Even better was the braised beef cheek, being flavoursome and extremely melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Jacko's oyster sauce went wonderfully with both versions of the beef, and the smooth mash decadent with the flavour and aroma of truffle. On the plate it may look a bit simple, but when simple is done with this level of complexity I wouldn't have it any other way.

Dessert of Passionfruit & Banana Cream Pie with Peanut Butter & Chocolate Crispies maintained the standard. I've made the kind of passionfruit tart that was served here and know its not the easiest thing to get right, and yet the filling was perfectly set. All the other components were well thought out and executed, with the intense flavour of the mango ice cream being the highlight. I had to admit the dish showed its age a bit - it was not quite as inventive as desserts Alissa and I have had in places like Caprice, Iggy's or even Co-op Dining for that matter - but considering this was an early dish from a restaurant 15 year old, one can see how this would have been as cutting edge and surprising in its time.

As I'd expect from a restaurant of this calibre, coffee was well made - the milk was not frothed the death and overboiled, and the espresso shot extracted with skill.

Petit fours were again a bit old school, being Raspberry Shortbread. Having seen what was served at the last Dego in 2013 (see 'coffee, tea and things' for details), this was a bit of a disappointment but we could not fault the quality of the shortbread as it was crumbly and buttery as good shortbread should be.

The Verdict: Excellent +
Being a retrospective of dishes from Jackson's early days, the food presented was never going to be as innovative and on-trend as newer restaurants in town, or even Jackson's in its later years. How could it be? 15 years ago the Molecular Gastronomy wave of el Bulli, the Fat Duck and Alinea had yet to crest, and the farm-to-table/foraging sustainable fine dining trend of places like Noma, Narisawa and Attica had yet to gain traction. In a sense, the Limited Edition Dego could be called classical Modern Australian, a look back at the proud history of this great restaurant's contribution to the cuisine of this country, and Perth in general. Other than the chicken and prawn dish, everything here executed perfectly with great skill, and presented in combinations that were well thought out. I'm so glad that we did get to have a meal at Jackson's, and if you've got a night free before last orders are taken on Saturday 12th April, 2014, I thoroughly recommended popping into Jackson's to send them off with a bang.

Jackson's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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