A few months ago, Alissa and I tried the original menu of Darling Supper Club, a new Asian Fusion themed restaurant and sake bar in Northbridge from the Andy Freeman and Sam Astbury-led creative team behind the incredible Varnish on King, as well as the recently opened Flour Factory. A surprising appearance in the Good Food Guide notwithstanding, the early reviews for Darlings were mixed to say the least, and we sadly had to agree that while the drinks list was characteristically commendable, the food was clumsy in its execution with a seemingly poor understanding about what makes good Asian Fusion food work. This was a real shame as what made Varnish on King's food so impressive was how it over delivered for a place that is ostensibly a whiskey bar, whereas Darlings paradoxically under delivered in spite of being more food focused.
That was in early September. A little over a week ago in mid-November, we received an email inviting us to a bloggers' Sunday lunch at Darlings to try their new menu. Realising that things were not working, Darlings had gone through some major changes; we would learn this included the firing of 5 chefs in three months(!) and the hiring of a trio of new talent in the form of Joel Robert as the new head chef, an Iron Chef Thailand alum nicknamed 'The Chopper' and Youngwoo from South Korea bringing his sashimi skills and knowledge to the Darlings kitchen. Seeing how seriously the creative team wanted this place to work, Alissa and I immediately said yes. Coincidentally, the event's date - Sunday 23rd of November - marked our first wedding anniversary, providing a lovely opportunity for a celebratory Sunday lunch.
One of the nice things about bloggers' events is being able to photograph the space without any pretence, and I was happy to get some of the photos I wasn't brazen enough to get last time. Something that impressed us on out first visit was the bar's selection of Japanese Whiskey and Sake; though smaller than the gigantic wall of whiskey at Varnish, the themed drinks focus was one of the strongest aspects of Darlings from Day 1, with bartender Simon Hough (pictured) proudly informing us that regulars now refer to sake euphemistically as 'Northbridge Water'.
Drinks were served upon arrival. First up was the Hanzo Slipper, an updated take on the Japanese Slipper presumably named after Hattori Hanzo. A mix of J&B Scotch, Midori, Absinthe, Lemon, Bitters and Orange Oil, Simon quipped that the aim of the drink was the try and make Midori cool again. Being a fan of this once ubiquitous melon liqueur from what it was cool, I really enjoyed Darling's take on this classic, the scotch and the absinthe giving the drink a ballsy kick to temper the sweetness of the Midori. Cocktails at any of Freeman's venues are a safe bet for quality, and this was no exception.
The Hello Kitty Spritz was the other option, consisting of Kizakura Sake, Coconut, Blueberry, Citrus Bitters and Prosecco. This was another delicious cocktail, with the combination of coconut and blueberry being particularly appealing combined with the nice fizz of the Prosecco.
But of course, the main reason we were here was to try their new menu, and head chef Joel Robert (pictured) was right at work in Darlings' open kitchen when we walked in.
The lovely, mild weather on the day made it perfect for us to all sit outside in the restaurant's outdoor area. Approved Manager on Duty Nikki Mauri (who herself was at one time a food blogger) took this group photo of all the blogger's present. While the large group meant we couldn't really talk to everybody, we did at least get a chance to chat with Kristy (aka the Queen of Bad Timing), Bri (Eat Meets West), Melanie (Take Me To Foodie Heaven, not in the photo as she came later) and Suzz (French Toast & Indie Pop).
The first dish of the day did not appear to be on the printed menus, and as such is either a newly developed dish or an amuse bouche designed just for this special banquet/tasting menu. Consisting of a Deep Fried Quail Egg, Lap Chong, Wasabi Mayonnaise, Roe and Micro Cress, it is a dish that is delicious enough that it really should be if it isn't. Reminiscent of a scotch egg, I really enjoyed the crunchiness of the crumb on the outside which was nicely contrasted by the creaminess of the half-set yolk, wasabi mayonnaise and the roe on top. The salty-umami hit of the Lap Chong and the peppery Micro Cress rounded it off nicely. Already, we were off to a promising start.
Considering they have gone to the effort of hiring a sashimi expert from overseas, the lack of a sashimi dish on the printed menu suggests the plate of Salmon Sashimi that followed was again something newly added. The hiring of Youngwoo definitely paid off - the salmon tasted very fresh, and was expertly sliced. My only criticism would be that a good blob of wasabi would have been nice to add to the soy sauce as I enjoy wasabi's heat. The tartare-like, cut up salmon tossed through a Wasabi Mayo had a mild version of the wasabi kick I was looking for, and was quite enjoyable.
A plate of Rottnest Island Scallops, Potato Foam, Coriander Pistou and a Five Spice Blood Sausage was the third dish in a row not on the printed menu, and was the third dish in a row that really should be. Chef Joel Robert's background in Provençal cooking was clear in this dish, with the ideas on the plate seemingly taken from French, but with very much Asian flavours expertly substituted in. The saltiness of the coriander pistou mixed wonderfully with the light creaminess of the potato foam, with the Five Spice flavoured Blood Sausage rich in flavour. The Blood Sausage reminded me a bit of cotechino if it had fallen into a jar of Five Spice powder. Very interesting. Overall, it was a relatively straight forward dish that layered great ideas and flavours nicely, complementing the perfectly cooked Scallop in a way that seemed natural.
Fresh Vietnamese Rolls with Pork Belly and Prawn and Satay Sauce is on the current printed menu. The rolls themselves were nice and fresh, tightly wound by skilled hands and filled with the ever crowd-pleasing combination of pork and prawn. Vietnamese Rolls tend to be fairly mild without a sauce, and the Satay Sauce served here provided a lot of the dish's flavour. It may not have been authentic to the style served with satay in Singapore or Malaysia, but it was a nice take, with bits of chilli and crunchy peanuts.
Teriyaki Octopus and Soba Salad with Wasabi Mayonnaise was probably the only dish I didn't really dig. The Teriyaki Octopus itself was fine;these were really well cooked, with a nice charred exterior while still being tender inside. The problem was the soba noodles tasted over-seasoned, being too salty and too acidic, and lacking a stronger sweet and/or umami counterpoint to balance out the other strong tastes. Compare it with the very tradition cold soba at Jun, or try cooking the soba salad recipes from Matt Moran's first book (again, quite traditional) or Ottolenghi's mango and eggplant-laden version in Plenty (more contemporary/fusion), and you'll see what I mean was missing.
Next up was the prettily plated Agedashi Tofu with Pickled Mushroom, Asparagus and Miso - the watermelon radish slices really made this dish pop, and made me want to grow some in our garden! This was an interesting fusion take on a well-worn classic, with the usual tentsuyu or miso soup that the Agedashi sits in transmogrified into a kind of reduced, umami miso sauce. The intensity made me think of Rojak, making it something of a pan-Asian fusion of Japanese and Malaysian cuisines. The accompanying radish, cooked asparagus and enoki mushrooms enhanced the dish further by providing textural interest. While tasty and well cooked silken tofu, I have to admit I did not think it was better than the more more traditional variety. Still, a decent enough dish.
Pork Belly is immensely easy to love, and the Crispy Confit Pork Belly with Chilli Palm Caramel was no exception; this was a truly excellent dish. The pork was incredibly well cooked, with the meat juicy and tender with that deliciously unctuous Pork Belly mouthfeel we've come to know and love.
And that crackling layer on top was as perfectly crispy as great Siu Yuk I've eaten can be, but with juicier meat due to the confit process. If this wasn't already impressive, the sticky, sweet sauce of caramelised chilli and palm sugar really took it to the next level of salty-sweet deliciousness. Their were elements of the salad beneath that I loved - the lychee, coconut and dressing were very tasty - however I don't personally love bean sprouts, so it was not my favourite. I stress that this is very much my own personal taste however, and Alissa gave the salad her full endorsement.
As if the pork was not enough to totally win us over, our final savoury dish of Braised Black Bean Beef Cheek on Coriander Pesto and Cabbage Marmalade sealed the deal. When we tried the original menu, we thought the Pork Ribs dish - easily the best dish we tried - was the Varnish Short Ribs of Darlings. But no - this is the true Short Ribs of Darlings.
Bri (from Eat Meets West) did the honours of cutting up the cheek, and just the merest suggestion from the knife was enough to make it fall apart; she probably could have cut it with a chop stick and it would have had the same effect. The texture of the meat was perfectly tender, and the flavour of the Black Bean, the Cabbage Marmalade, Coriander Pesto and what we were told was an 'Orange Marmite' sauce altogether added up to an incredibly delicious umami explosion. This is a must order dish; be prepared to order one each as just like the Varnish Short Ribs, these are almost too good to share.
With all the savouries complete, a cart of sweet treats were brought out for us to sample. With desserts made at the Flour Factory by an ex-Vue de Monde pastry chef, we knew we were in for a treat. Salted, Caramelised Peanut and Choc Snickers were easily the heavier of the two items on offer. I'm not known as a fan of overly rich chocolate desserts and this was no exception; it was a bit much for my liking, but Alissa really enjoyed it. The salty-sweet peanuts and the peanut butter in the middle of the bars were definitely highlights however, and in different, ratio of nut to chocolate I think I would have really enjoyed it but as it is, its more for those people for whom no chocolate dish can possibly be too rich.
Conversely, I really enjoyed the Macarons - quite possibly the best Alissa and I have eaten since our all-time favourite Macarons at the then 3 Michelin-starred Caprice in Hong Kong. Alissa used to work at Fiorentina in North Perth where Macaron eating was a daily occurrence, and she felt that these walked all over their justly celebrated offerings. For me, the best thing about these Macarons was the fact that pink ones tasted a lot like Malaysian Coconut Candies. The flavour memory took me back to eating Coconut Candies as a child, something that they obviously could not have known about but that I really appreciated.
The Verdict: Excellent
I ended our first Darlings post saying 'I believe in the overall idea, but at current the food just doesn't live up to how great it could be'. Well, I'm happy to say that Darlings have definitely arrived. It's a commendably brave thing for a venue to admit they've made a mistake, actually take what everyone was saying on board and completely turn it around in as short a period of time as Darlings has. Other than the Soba Noodles (and to a lesser extent the Agedashi Tofu), every dish served was a vast improvement on our last visit, with the Confit Pork Belly and the Braised Black Bean Beef Cheek being truly knockout dishes. This is Asian Fusion that gets the concept. While we didn't try the dumplings, we have been assured that the recipes have been seriously tweaked, and I noticed the course, gritty Triple Pepper I had complained about had been exorcised from the title of the Kangaroo and Bush Tomato Dumplings, and the Chilli Roast Pork Noodles seem to have been completely deleted from the menu. Good work.
Talking to Simon Hough and other staff, it was clear to me how genuine the team are at ensuring their concepts are realised as great venues and how much the clearly love their work, which also accounts for the genuinely great service we've always experienced at all of Freeman's venues. These are passionate people aiming to do good things for Perth's dining scene, and I'm glad to be able to reverse our previous verdict and give the new Darlings a very strong recommendation.