One of the peculiarities of Western Australia's public holiday calendar is how sparse the long weekends become in the second half of the year. While the first half of the year averages 1 a month, after WA Day its over three months before the Queen's Birthday long weekend provides some respite from the relentless working week. The Queen's Birthday then is a holiday we all look forward to, independent of whatever feelings we have for the monarchy. This Queen's Birthday weekend was particularly important for Alissa, as it marked the end of her prac for her university studies and a weekend down south celebrating the birthday of our friend Annaliese Hutchison. After heading down with our friend Ben on the Friday night, Alissa and I had some free time on the Saturday morning to explore. After tasting (and purchasing) wine from the cellar door at Flying Fish Cove, Alissa and I decided to stop in for lunch at the cellar door restaurant at the nearby Arimia Estate.
Located down the road from Gabriel Chocolate and the excellent Windows Estate Winery, Arimia is an up and coming winery and cellar door restaurant that specialises in less common varietals such as straight Mouvedre and Petit Verdot and Zinfandel alongside Margaret River standards like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Merlot. The wines are still underrated in my opinion (I particularly enjoy the Zinfandel) but the cellar door restaurant seems to have really taken off, no doubt in part due to its being recommended in the 2014 Good Food Guide. With its charming old school bistro furniture and the bright artwork on the walls, its a space that invites one to linger for a while longer for coffee and cake after a tasting.
Not having a reservation on a public holiday weekend and with the restaurant fully booked, Alissa and I were seated at a long communal table they have set aside for walk-ins. This was totally fine by us, and with no other walk-ins during our visit we had the table to ourselves anyway.
If the weather have been better however, we would have been offered a table on the lawn near their alfresco area. With rain threatening at any moment, we were more than happy to remain indoors.
Not feeling overly hungry, Alissa and I decided to share the Caramelised Onion and Gruyere Tart topped with Rocket and Parmesan. This was a really well made tart, with the short crust perfectly crisp and crumbly, and the sweetness of the onion inside balanced out by the full bodied mature flavour of the Gruyere. The addition of rocket on top provided both a peppery note and some needed freshness, and while the dish didn't necessarily need the additional colour and flavour boost of the pesto beneath, its presence was definitely appreciated.
In spite of not being hungry enough to order separate entrees, a platter of Bread, Marinated Olives, Housemade Olive Oil and Dukkah were provided compliments of the chef. The artisinal Bread was well made, with a pleasingly soft texture. More impressively, the delicious, flavoursome Marinated Olives and Olive Oil were made in-house, and tasted all the better for it. The Dukkah too tasted like it had been freshly made, having none of the flavour dissipation of mass-produced variants. Its simple, typically ploughman's fare as seen in many a cellar door, but done at a level better than most.
For mains, Alissa and I were both eyeing off the Braised Pork Cheek, Royal Blue Gnocchi, Spinach, Tomato & Toasted Pistachio. Being the pork fanatic that Alissa is, I decided to graciously pick another dish in the interests of all involved. As the mains arrived, the smell of the dish wafted into the room, and it smelt so, so good. Having just made ricotta gnocchi the weekend before, I had commented then how seldom I've had traditional potato gnocchi that has tasted anywhere near as fluffy as the ricotta variant, so it was lovely to find that the large pillows served here were good examples of how well made gnocchi should be - light and fluffy on the inside, with a nicely seared crust. The tomato-based sauce was very well balanced, being rich without being over-the-top, not too acidic, not too salty, and a good dose of umami goodness thanks to the intensifying of flavour that tomato undergoes when used in a braise. The slow cooked pork cheek had all the fall apart deliciousness of a good, well braised cut, and the dish was finished off with the lovely cheffy touch of toasted pistachio crumbled on top. This was definitely the stand out dish, and one that would appeal to a very wide audience.
The Salmon & Shark Tortelloni, Cauliflower, Hazelnut, Pomegranate on the other hand was not a dish for everyone, especially anyone who has a particularly aversion to strong fishy smells and flavours. There was a lot to like here - the Tortelloni pasta itself was well made, the sauce/broth flavoursome and the serve generous and filling - however the strength of the shark flavour permeated the dish in a way that was very dominant. If you're someone like me who enjoys eating strong-tasting fish, this will not be a problem however for those more sensitive to fishy smell and flavours, this is probably not the dish for you.
The next day, Alissa and I returned to Arimia as part of a large group booking to try a selection of their large share plates and pizzas.
The meal was part of the birthday weekend plans organised by Annaliese, (here with her husband Trevor, both of whom joined Alissa and I earlier in the year for a meal at Jackson's before it closed).
With a sizeable group, the Arimia kitchen decided to combine their seafood-oriented Arimia Plate and the Charcuterie Plate into combined super platters. As with a lot of these kind of tasting plates, its hard to judge many items that are likely sourced rather than made in-house (such as the cheese and prosciutto), however many of the items clearly made by the kitchen were noteworthy. The Squid Fritters in particular were amazing, with the batter providing a crispy exterior to a dish that was otherwise delicate and surprisingly light. This alone would make the Arimia Plate worth ordering, with the marinated sardines and octopus providing able if less surprising accompaniment. On the Charcuterie side, the Pork and Pistachio Terrine was a noteworthy example of this share platter staple, and it went well with the pickled carrot provided. We agreed however that the light, fluffy and not overly livery Duck Liver Parfait was the addictive star. Spread on bread, one could easily be very happy with this as a meal in its own right.
Along with the same excellent Bread we had the day before, the platter also contained some Bianca Pizza for us to build our own pizza flavours with the platter contents, and gave us a taste of the pizzas that were to come. Alissa and I noted that the base was a good, very thin base - thinner than what we recently had at Neighbourhood Pizza in the Perth. It was not quite as impressive as Neighbourhood, however it was certainly better than many other pizza bases - in no small part due to the use of proper, hot wood fire oven.
With the share plates finished, we moved onto the pizza round of the lunch. Pear, Blue Cheese & Honey started everything off on the right foot with the sure-fire success of a classic, much loved combination. Using the proper high heat cooking method of a wood fire, the thinly spiced pear was cooked to that perfectly just cooked level one might call 'rare' if it were meat, and its honey-bolstered sweetness was well balanced out by the metallic, salty flavour of the generous amount of blue cheese on top. There was nothing particularly revolutionary here, however the execution was excellent.
Alissa usually does not like seafood pizzas, but she was won over by the impressive Chilli Prawn, Pimento & Citrus Squid Ink Aioli. As with the last pizza, the use of a pesto based was a good idea, as it did not overwhelm the other flavours present. The Chilli Prawns had a nice, just cooked texture I look for in prawn dishes, and the sweet pepperiness of the pimento was bolstered by the pepperiness of the fresh rocket on top. The master-stroke however was the Citrus Squid Ink Aioli, which gave the dish acidity and lovely marine flavour that elevated the dish to the next level.
The Potato, Caramelised Onion, Chicken & Spinach was not the best looking pizza, but it was very nice. The combination of Chicken, Mayonnaise and Pesto is the kind of classic combination we've all seen before and enjoyed; this was no exception, however the use of caramelised onion and potato gave it some additional interest not always seen on similar pizzas.
My favourite pizza of the day was Prosciutto, Mushroom, Goats Cheese & Truffle Oil. Mushroom and just about any cured meat as a pizza topping is a winner in my eyes, and the use of Truffle Oil helped enhance and elevate the mushroom flavour. Combined with the fluffy Goats Cheese, this classically Mediterranean combination of flavours was well served by the umami acidity of the tomato base, with the fresh rocket on top finishing it off ably. In season, a shaving of fresh black truffle on top would make this a perfectly indulgent winter lunch all by itself.
After the heights of the previous pizza, the Margherita that followed seemed as pedestrian as this pizza can so often be in comparison to more exciting offerings. Not much to say about this; I've had better and I've had worse, and as with every other time I'd rather have something else that was a bit more exciting.
The Verdict: Excellent
With the Margaret River Wine Region's food market flooded with bakeries and breweries on the one end and expensive fine diners on the other, there's a great dearth of mid-level cellar door eateries doing something a bit more interesting without having to go all out with a fine dining meal at somewhere like Will's Domain or Cape Lodge. Arimia then fills a much-needed niche; its menu of well made, hearty fare is perfect for a casual Sunday lunch in WA's South West, showing enough technique to keep things interesting while being classical enough so as it appeal to any fussy eaters in the party. It may not be as adventurous and individualistic as Denmark's Pepper & Salt or as polished as the nearby Vasse Felix, but with their fantastically affordable quality to price point its definitely worthy lunch stop during your next drive Down South.