Saturday, 17 May 2014

Pepper & Salt, Denmark, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

In January last year, Alissa and I had the pleasure of dining at Pepper & Salt - arguably not just the best restaurant in Denmark, but in the entire Great Southern region as a whole. Owned and operated by chef Silas Masih and his wife Angela, and at that time located at Rockcliffe Winery, the interesting spice-driven fusion food had Alissa and I raving to both our parents. When my parents went down to Denmark later in the year they were similarly impressed with Silas' creativity, and he had spoken to my parents about their plans for a potential expansion. We were thus elated to pick up a copy of the Good Food Guide and discover that Pepper & Salt had made the move to the massive upper deck of Forest Hill's cellar door. Having been the head chef at the cellar door before striking out on his own, it's a fitting homecoming, as well as a reactivation of what was an underutilised space. Heading down for the Anzac Day weekend, a return visit to Pepper & Salt was something I pretty much insisted on.

Keeping with the spice-driven vibe of Silas' cooking, the restaurant features liberal swathes of burnt orange that, combined with the paisley pattern of the dividers, conjures up a certain West Asian mood. As someone much enamoured with all things a). orange and b). paisley, I approved very highly.

I always believe its a good idea to book things way in advance, and again my forward planning paid off - after a bit of confusion about whether my name was Donovan or Doreen, we were ushered to a table that was one of the best in the house, with spectacular views of the Denmark countryside and Forest Hill's vineyard. While the landscaped gardens of Rockcliffe were idyllic and pretty, they simply could not compare to the wonderful view pictured above.

Joining us for the meal were Alissa's parents Jane and John Claessens. After years of holidays to the Great Southern and planning for their dream home, my in-laws recently realised their dream of moving to Denmark, joining members of the Claessens family who had already made the move in years past. With my parents sharing a similar goal of retiring to Albany, and Alissa and I each having fond childhood memories of holidays in the region, the Great Southern is fast becoming our second home.

As fans of cool climate shiraz, pinot noir and riesling, its also one of our favourite wine regions in Australia, and it particularly excels at the latter. Being Forest Hill's de facto cellar door restaurant, the wine list is expectedly dominated by a selection from the winery - something we were perfectly fine with, considering they have been one of James Halliday's 5 Star Wineries for many years. As the oldest planting of riesling in the state, the crisp acidity of their Block 1 Riesling has long be a personal favourite, and we selected a bottle of the current vintage to accompany our meal. Note also the spice mill filled with the restaurant's signature spice blend, featuring an assortment of spices alongside the expected pepper and salt.

As an entree, we decided that the Pepper & Salt Tapas Plate was a great way for us to sample a variety of different flavours. A lot of winery share plates tend to be charcuterie based, and while we've certainly had good examples of that style at places like Vasse Felix, its refreshing to see someone doing something a bit different. Consisting of Battered Fish, Arancini Balls, Thai Fish Cakes with a Seaweed Salad, Beetroot Dip, Hummus and a sample of Silas' signature Chili Coconut Prawns served with crusty bread, there was not a single weak element. Our meal at Jun in Perth was a perfect illustration that there is a skill to frying things well, and while not as light as Jun's Karaage or Pork Skewers, the Battered Fish was skillfully prepared with a good crispiness and minimal oily residue. The Arancini Balls were tasty and well made in their own right, but the accompanying capsicum sauce gave it an extra kick that helped elevate the dish, while the combination of the spicy and umami flavour of the Thai Fish Cakes with the equally umami-rich seaweed salad seemed like such an obvious partnership that I'm surprised I haven't encountered it before. The Hummus and Beetroot dips were excellent too, being fresher and brighter in flavour than the mass produced varieties common at supermarkets. However the star of the Tapas Plate were the Chili Coconut Prawns. Basically a very tasty Southern Indian-style curry prawn dish, Silas' version is elevated and refined. The recipe is available online here, and while the instructions in the link suggest a Clare Valley Riesling, our  Block 1 was more than up to the task.

Having recently enjoyed marron dishes at Vue de Monde and Attica, it seemed only fitting to order the Scotsdale Marron, Shiitake Mushroom Water Chestnut Dumpling and Bacon Hock Broth - especially considering marron is native to the region. The presentation of the dish was glorious, however the time consuming nature of removing the marron from the shells lessened my enjoyment of the dish somewhat, as by the time I actually got around to really digging in to the soup and dumplings, they were on the colder side of warm. Which is a real shame, as the marron was well cooked and seasoned (and in a very generous serve), the salty-smoky-umami broth delicious, and the dumpling very tasty indeed. It was just not at the right temperature. Its a dish that is also offered as an entree, and I think at a smaller scale this Asian-inspired dish would have been even better since the deshelling would have taken a lot less time.

Alissa initially had decided to go with the Kangaroo, however at the last minute changed her mind and went with the Wood-Fire Braised Pork Cheeks, Seedless Flame Grapes, Toasted Freekeh and Preserved Lemon Aioli. Perhaps its the thought of coming from a pig's face but cheek is a criminally underutilised cut; this dish served as a great example that it really can be porcine gold. The braised meat was moist and fork-tender, with a melt-in-your-mouth quality akin to slow cooked pork belly but with much less fat. Pork is a good friend of sweet flavours, with the spicy-sweet sauce and the slow roasted grapes fulfilling that role commendably. The nuttiness of the freekeh and its chewiness added a nice comparative texture, and the zesty creaminess of the aioli proved a great contrast to the overall spiciness.

The Slow-Cooked Spiced Duck Maryland, Green Bean Sambal and Pumpkin Massaman Curry was Jane's choice of main, and was a dish that definitely on my shortlist too. Cooking times were well considered in this dish, with the superbly slow-cooked maryland's meat just falling off the bone while the pumpkins and the beans still having the right amount of firmness. The curry was a good Massaman in its own right, with its trademark combination of spice, nuttiness and sweetness shining through. Many Thai restaurants served green and red curries with your choice of meat while offering no other options for Massaman except beef, and this dish makes a strong case for duck's pairing with this nutty curry.

John's main was the Spice Aged Plantaganet Beef Eye-Fillet, Aloo Tikkis, Anise Red Onion Chutney in Pan Jus. The Eye-Fillet was cooked with a crust of the signature Pepper & Salt spice mix and topped with the chutney. The juicy and tender steak was served a perfect medium rare as per John's request, and the aloo tikkis - a mildly spiced Indian version of a potato rosti - was a worthy companion. The combination of the beef, spices, chutney and the flavoursome pan jus added up to a hearty dish that combined east and west flavours seamlessly.

We decided to share two desserts between the four of us. The Coconut and Cardamom Arancini, Burnt Lychee Sorbet and Poached Rhubarb was my favourite of the two. The idea of making a sweet Arancini with the typically Indian combination of coconut and cardamom was a stroke of fusion genius that worked even better than it read on paper, and the hot Arancini balls paired nicely with the frozen sweet fruitiness of the Burnt Lychee sorbet, with the Rhubarb providing a tart hit. As a cardamom fiend I couldn't get enough, and I saved one final mouthful as the flavours I wanted to end the meal on.

Almost as good was the comparatively more straightforward Passionfruit and Basil Tart with White Chocolate and Chilli Ice Cream. The dessert potential of basil seems to be all the rage these days, and its subtle use here provided an additional point of interest to what was otherwise a fairly standard (if well made) Passionfruit Tart. White chocolate and passionfruit work well together, and here the White Chocolate of the ice cream worked as a link to one of chocolates other allies - chilli. The moderate chilli kick helped elevate this dish, and if it wasn't quite as amazing as the Coconut and Arancini, it was no pushover either.

The Verdict: Excellent +
Other than the issue I had with the soup going cold, this return visit cemented our view that Pepper & Salt is one of the best restaurants in regional Western Australia, and I would compare the quality of the food favourably to the more established and highly esteemed Vasse Felix in Margaret River - even if the styles of food are quite disparate. Pepper & Salt's food is probably most similar to East Indies in Cochin, a restaurant that proved to be a highlight of our honeymoon. Like East Indies head Chef Saiju Thomas, Silas' executes his fusion approach well and in a manner that doesn't seem contrived or unnecessarily complicated, and there is a strong sense of the chef's personality in every dish. Denmark is lucky to have such a wonderful restaurant to call its own, and its one Alissa and I would try to make part of our regular Great Southern itinerary.

Pepper & Salt Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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