Before I even stepped through the minimally signed front door for the first time, Varnish on King had already impressed me. Being a typically congested Friday night in the Perth CBD, I had opted to use a combination of train and bicycle to get there instead of driving in. Unsure about the attitude Varnish might have towards cyclists parking their bikes out the front (even some casual restaurants in Melbourne can be a bit dickish in this regard), I decided to head a bit further down to the Wellington St end of King. As I was chaining up my bike, a man approached me.
"Hey mate, which way are you going?"
Uncertain of the guy's motives, I gestured vaguely up the street; "That way."
"There's been a lot of bike theft on King St recently. If you want you can chain your bike out the front of my bar and my bouncer can keep an eye on it for you."
The bar was of course Varnish on King. The guy (presumably the owner or manager) could not have known at the time that I was dining there, but the thoughtful and unpretentious attitude started everything off on the right foot, and set the tone for the entire evening.
Opened in mid-2013 and located in a basement on King St, Varnish is one of the many small bars that have become an important part of Perth's increasingly vibrant dining scene. The Varnish mission statement is fairly simple; 'All we do all day is source the best food, the best wine and the best whiskey to share with our friends'. They make it sound so simple, but Varnish has distinguished itself with one of the most comprehensive whiskey lists I've ever seen anywhere, and a very strong wine list with excellent by the glass options.
The 'to share with friends' part of their mission is key here; for a place that is super hip, on-trend and all about quality, the vibe is fun, casual and welcoming...
... best illustrated by the bar's whimsical mascot Justin Beaver. Yes, they went there.
As much as the place is ostensibly an American-style Whiskey Bar (and I do like a good whiskey), its their food menu that truly piqued my interest. A lot of small bars tend to rest on their alcohol-driven laurels with food relegated to simple cash cow bar snacks, but when a great drinks lists can be combined with great food that is something to be very excited about. Like the excellent Pleased to Meet You across the tracks in Northbridge, Varnish on King offer a food menu fit for a serious feed. The real coup here is their head chef David Allison is formerly from the incredible Vue de Monde in Melbourne, a restaurant that blew Alissa and I away during our recent Easter Melbourne sojourn. With such pedigree, I was interested to see what kind of cheffy fine dining touches he could bring to bar/pub food, especially considering how well these kind of ideas translated to breakfast food at the impressive Hammer and Tong in Fitzroy - also with a kitchen headed up by an ex-Vue de Monde chef.
I ended up dining at Varnish twice in May. Sans Alissa for the first of these meals, I was joined by my former Spatula mates Renae Coles, Jenna Downing and Hayley Bahr. Spatula was an art collective we work in for many years before the four of us decided to focus on other projects. Our most well known (and final) work was a macadamia nut crushing tricycle and our on-bike cooking show 'Mega Deluxe Wheel Deal' for Fringe in 2012 (seriously). The second meal was with my parents and Alissa for my birthday. On both occasions at least one member of the dining party was gluten intolerant (Renae and my mother, respectively), and Varnish's menu is notable for the fact that the vast majority of dishes come gluten free by default, so unless otherwise noted every savoury dish is coeliac-friendly (not sure about the desserts though). Since most dishes were double ups, I'll talk about each dish in the dish order of the Spatula meal, with the differing dishes of the second meal discussed separately at the end. Needless to say, I've now have the pleasure of trying just about every dish on their menu so this will be a fairly comprehensive overview.
One of the friendly wait staff brought out a tray with Celery Salt, Lemon Salt and Pepper. Considering how perfectly most of the dishes were seasoned this tray was a bit unnecessary, but it was a nice artisanal touch. Being a menu designed to be shared, we were advised that two dishes per person was a good rule of thumb. I find it hard to gauge how many plates of food to order from share plate menus as the serving sizes vary wildly from place to place, so the advice given was both welcome and very much appreciated.
With a whiskey list as long as Varnish's, its almost too difficult to pick just one. As much as the Whiskey Flight was tempting and probably the best way to experience their incredible selection, I was happy to find have a neat glass of Booker's to sip on my first visit. As someone who generally drinks whiskey freely poured at home, I did find the one shot to be a very scant amount of liquor even with the relatively high alcohol percentage of Booker's, and I personally felt it would be better to savour some of their wine with the meal and save the whiskey for a satisfying digestif.
The first dish to arrive at our table was Split Cajun Prawn with Lemon and Avruga. On our first visit, the prawns were just a touch overdone for my liking, and the creamy Cajun dressing was a little on the salty side. Squeezing the lemon on top cut the saltiness and restored balance to the dish, with the avruga caviar adding some nice extra richness and depth of flavour. A good if not perfect dish, I was delighted to find the dish even better the second time around with the prawns cooked just to the right texture and seasoned wonderfully. Being a lighter dish with less edible mass than some of the dishes to come, it was an ideal dish to serve first, and on both occasions I found that the dishes arrived in roughly the same order as they appeared in the menu, and suggested that dish order had been a consideration. In my post for Pinchos, I had criticised seemingly random dish order of many share plate menus as taking away from the whole experience. To be served in a manner that seemed to follow curated logic did in fact heighten the experience, bringing the meal closer to a more casual version of a degustation.
I love to see menus with vegetable dishes treated with the same level of dignity and respect as the more prestigious meat dishes, and the Cauliflower with Garlic and Toasted Pepitas was a strong illustration of how good a meatless dish can be. The lovingly toasted and mildly charred cauliflower was incredibly meaty and cooked enough to no longer be raw but still maintain a nice crunch. While the pepitas imparted a lovely nuttiness to the proceedings, it was the sour hit of the pomegranate that to me really made the dish as it popped with both colour and flavour. The Spatula crew and I were thoroughly impressed by this dish, and my Mum liked it so much she was inspired to go home and cook a head of cauliflower in this fashion.
The beautifully plated Cured Esperance Scallops with Smoked Mussel, Cucumber and Salmon Roe came next. The cured scallops maintained the delicate, distinctly marine flavour of uncooked scallops with a complementary citrus kick. In a display of cheffy restraint in the interest of balance, the smoked mussel, cucumber and salmon roe were all served in perfect proportions to the scallop so as to enhance rather than overwhelm its flavour. With all flavours combined, this was a great example of chef David Allison's ability to incorporate a bit of fine dining finesse into the menu and Hayley really liked this dish as she prefers scallops cured in this manner rather than cooked. My only criticism of the dish is that with three scallops it is a difficult one to share between four people, and it was for this reason that we didn't order the scallops on our second visit.
The Roast Sweet Potato with Goats Curd, Burnt Butter and Maple was one of the standout dishes of both nights. It was seriously unbelievable; the lovely, crispy exterior of its outer layer gave way to the smoothest, creamiest, sweetest and most perfectly cooked sweet potato any of us had ever eaten. Combined with the added sweetness of the maple, the richness of the burnt butter, the sourness of the goat's curd and topped off with brussel sprouts, this phenomenal dish was one of the reasons I ended up coming back for a second meal at Varnish. Everyone on both days called it one of the top 2 dishes, with Jenna going as far as to say it was her favourite. It might seem strange to praise something as simple as sweet potato so highly, but it really goes to show that even humble ingredients can undergo an incredible alchemy in the hands of a skilled chef. After all, Melbourne's Attica did get to #21 in the world with a potato dish as Ben Shewry's signature dish.
The Slow Cooked Pork Belly with Sauteed Prawn & Baked Quince came next, ramping the meal up towards the heavier dishes. The pork belly itself was perfectly cooked with that trademark sticky unctuousness, presented here with pork's old friend fruit and perfectly sauteed prawns. On both occasions, the sweet, baked quince was mistaken for a more orthodox apple accompaniment, and the cognitive dissonance this caused actually heightened the enjoyment, as the quince's flavour proved a pleasant surprise for the unsuspecting palate. Renae really liked this dish and Hayley declared it her favourite. As much as Alissa and I are usually lovers of all things pork, we had to admit that the Pork Belly was surpassed by the next dish...
Justly praised by just about every food blogger and critic who has ever eaten it, the Twice Cooked Short Ribs with JD Treacle Reduction and Salsa Verde has become the Varnish on King signature dish. Its as incredible as everyone says, and even I as someone who does not usually love beef had to concede this dish is a wonder to behold. The rib meat was so tender that people on the table next to us literally turned a rib vertical, and with some gentle coaxing with a fork, the meat literally just fell off the bone. Rib meat cooked in this fashion is already incredibly flavoursome, and the Jack Daniels Treacle Reduction imparted a welcome smokey sweetness that only made it even more delicious To finish it off, the fresh acidity of the salsa verde helped cut the heaviness. Renae felt that this was the 'easy' answer for best dish, but added that it was so good she could have easily eaten a whole pile of these until the gluttonous point of feeling really sick - I think I could easily do that, too. Along with the Sweet Potato, ordering the Short Ribs is a Varnish on King must-do.
Like the scallops, the Smoked Duck Breast with Parsnip Puree, Whiskey Liver Cream and Parsnip Crisps was beautifully plated. The duck was well seasoned and had a lovely flavour that suggested the use of Jack Daniels barrel wood chips in the smoking process. While the edges had been seared, the interior was pink still for a nice medium rare. The accompanying elements were a perfect amalgamation of cheffy technique and pub food flavours, with the whiskey liver cream and parsnip puree working in tandem to give the dish a lovely richness, and the parsnip crisp providing some gluten free crunch. Samphire, a favourite native ingredient I was introduced to at Co-op Dining, generously topped the dish, providing its unique and delicious saltiness. The only criticism made was that the breast meat was perhaps a bit dry, though its fairly typical of this cut and was not overly.
Hayley and I decided to share a dessert, and we settled on the Chocolate and Honeycomb 'Violet Crumble', hoping perhaps for something like Attica's Violet Crumble dish, especially since it was no longer on the menu by the time Alissa and I ate there. The dessert served was decidedly more humble even if it did feature some fine dining finesse in its plating. The Chocolate Ganache was really rich, and I'm glad that we were sharing as I can't really do massive serves of rich chocolate desserts. The honeycomb on top was really good, adding sweetness and a crunchy texture, while the mascarpone cheesecake quenelle on the plate was so delicious Hayley declared it 'orgasmic' (though she does admittedly use the term somewhat liberally).
For my second visit to Varnish, all the aforementioned savoury dishes were ordered again, with the exception of the Scallops and the Duck. In place of the scallops, we ordered the Venison Loin with Pickled Beets, Smoked Mayo and Bread Crisps, a dish that is not gluten free but was easy enough for my gluten intolerant mother to eat by removing the crisps. A fairly light, entree-style dish, the Varnish kitchen impressed again by choosing the venison as the dish to start this second meal on. The venison was served carpaccio-style as a thin sheet of uncooked meat on the plate, and the plating was so pretty it could easily have slotted into our meal at Vue de Monde. The Pickled beetroot on top of the venison was nice and sweet- in fact the golden-coloured beetroot in the middle was so sweet we all thought it was a stone fruit like a nectarine, and it was only upon looking at the photo again that I realised the textural similarities between it and the red beetroot. The smoked mayo was nice and creamy, with the smoke giving it that extra flavour kick and the bread crisps providing a nice crunch.
Duck was not available on the second visit, so it was substituted for Smoked Chicken Breast with Parsnip Puree, Whiskey Liver Cream and Parsnip Crisps - the same dish but with chicken breast instead. The dish was very much the same as the duck version except with the most subtle flavour of the Chicken Breast and slightly less pretty plating. I liked the duck a bit better, but this worked almost as well.
Dessert is where we diverged from my meal with Spatula the most. Given Alissa is something of a cheese fiend we just had to try the Extravagant Triple Cream Cheese with Date Puree, Verjuice Gel, Chestnut, Shaved Celery. The triple cream brie was indeed extravagant in its creaminess, and the Date Puree and Verjuice Gel were unsurprisingly complementary. I can't quite remember where the chestnut fit into all this, largely because I was so impressed by the use of the celery that draped across the crackers on the plate. I have a strong hatred for celery as a vegetable, however this is the second dessert I've been served that proved the taste of celery can be nice is proportional doses (the first was at Iggy's in Singapore). A good if simple cheese dish dish; far from the selection on offer at Vue de Monde or the best-ever cheese platter at Caprice, but a much better than average offering for a more casual restaurant like Varnish.
My second visit ended with the Poached Pear with Chocolate Crumb, Whiskey Caramel & Mascarpone. The piece of poached pear went well with the Black Forest-tasting chocolate crumb, and my Mum in particularly liked that the chocolate content came in the form of the texture-giving crumb instead of chocolate sauce. The whiskey caramel that did provide the sauce was a much more interesting choice that paired well with the creaminess of the vanilla flavoured mascarpone cream cylinder. To finish it off, some shaved cylinders of fresh pear provided some textural difference, and recalled the scrolls of potato we were served at Vue de Monde. I tend to prefer fruity desserts over chocolate, so this was probably my favourite of the the two sweet desserts I tried.
The Verdict: Excellent +
Needless to say, I left Varnish on King thoroughly impressed on both occasions. This is the kind of food I want to go out and eat all the time - food that is informed by the best that fine dining technique has to offer, but served in a more casual environment and with a more affordable price tag. Food each time came in around the $45 mark each with dessert. While its not a cheap eat, the quality to price point makes a meal at Varnish good value for money, with the Short Ribs and the Sweet Potato in particular being every bit as good as some dishes I've been served at fine dining establishments. Service was also really top notch, with friendly staff that did not have any of the 'too cool for school' vibe I've experienced at some other very on-trend eateries. Like what Hammer and Tong's Simon Ward (another Vue de Monde Alumni) has done with breakfast food, David Allison has successfully taken what he learnt from his time at Vue de Monde and found a way to bring some of that refinement to bar/pub food, and Perth is all the better for it. Alissa and I have already talked about heading back, and with occasional 5 course Chef's Table meals paired with Varnish's premium drinks menu we can't wait to see what else the Varnish kitchen have in store.