Outside of the towns and regional centres, dining out in the South West is a largely daytime affair. It makes sense - driving around the Australian bush at night with little to no phone coverage over great distances can be a bit unnerving if you aren't used to it, especially with the risk of kangaroo collisions increasing at sundown and sunset. It was surprising then to discover Cape Lodge - one of the top rated restaurants in the Margaret River Region - did not open for lunch, and that it was their fine dining dinner service that was most celebrated. With the recent arrival of a new head chef in Michael Elfwing and a recently updated dining room that has been described as the region's most fancy, Alissa and I decided to make dinner at Cape Lodge one of our two fine dining destinations during our 2015 Down South trip.
Alissa and I arrived at Cape Lodge an hour before sunset, and the grounds glowed with that magical, golden hue of the hour's light. The best vantage point for a photo of the restaurant is from the other side of the lake, and not being guests of the hotel we didn't feel comfortable walking to the other side for a photo. Suffice it to say - Cape Lodge is a supremely picturesque restaurant.
Once taking our seats inside, Alissa and I were amazed by the very classy interior design. Being used to the casual vibe of even the most culinarily serious restaurants in the Margaret River Region (Vasse Felix and Wills Domain for example), Cape Lodge is legitimately formal dining in the old school, Haute Cuisine mold.
Wanting to get the full Cape Lodge experience, Alissa and I opted for the 5 course degustation option. 5 courses is on the smaller side when it comes to degustations, but as it customary a few complimentary sides and courses were included. First of these complimentary extras was the traditional serve of Fresh Bread. Cape Lodge's Caraway and Cumin Bread was fantastic - the flavour of caraway and cumin was really delicious, and we could smell its aroma as it was brought to our table. Baked just 30 minutes before service, this was easily some of the best fine dining bread we've had in a while, with an exceptionally soft interior while being crusty on the outside.
As a nice surprise, our Sommelier was Charles Serveau, the former Tea Sommelier who served us at Vue de Monde in April last year! Of all the sommelier and waiters we have met over all the dinners we've had during the life of the Ministry of Gluttony, Charles is probably the one we remember the most fondly as we stayed an extra hour after our dinner at Vue de Monde talking to him while he served us the best tea we've ever had. When he found out Alissa and I hailed from the west coast, he confided that he used to work in Margaret River, and ultimately wanted to return there by the end of the year. We often wondered if he'd made it back, and it was really good to bump into him again. While not a Tea Sommelier at Cape Lodge, Charles was just as helpful with wine as he'd been with tea at Vue de Monde, helping us pick a good riesling from Cape Lodge's exceptional wine list - a 2010 La Côte de Rouffach from Alsace, the region of France from which he hails.
As expected, the first course of our menu was proceeded by an Amuse Bouche - Fremantle Sea Mullet, Grapefruit Leaf, Fennel, Radish and Olive Tapanade. This was a very tasty starter, with a good balance of citrus and anise flavours, with soft, perfectly tender mullet meat. It was over so fast it was hard to make any more sense of it, but it fulfilled the amuse bouche's role of whetting our appetites for more.
After a short wait, our first course of Wagyu Carpaccio, Pepperberry, Capers, Parmesan Cheese, Wild Rocket arrive. Our second beef Carpaccio in three days (after Laundry 43), this dish again showed off how why Wagyu Beef is so prized, having a wonderfully melt in your mouth texture. The flavours on the plate were a play on pepper and steak, with the Pepperberry, Rocket and Nasturtium flavoured Capers providing some peppery heat, while Parmesan helped boost the umami. With Dill and Garlic Flowers for added flavour and interest, this was a nicely balanced and perfectly seasoned dish.
One of the great pleasures of fine dining in Australia is eating Marron and our second course of Donnybrook Marron Grilled in its Shell, Green Asparagus, Preserved Lemon Rice allowed our local crustacean to really shine. The Marron meat was cooked perfectly with a delicate and buttery texture, while the rice had a nice grainy nuttiness and lemon flavour that was very complementary. The Asparagus was prepared in a a very classical presentation, beautifully manicured and shaped at the woody end.
Shellfish Soup, Shark Bay Prawns, Esperance Scallop, Roasted Tomato, Slow Cooked Onion followed. Again drawing from a classical tradition, this was a fantastic Seafood Bisque; wonderfully rich and complex, the soup had a savoury onion and garlic flavour, with loads of umami from the Roasted Tomatoes and the shellfish stock that was this dish's backbone. Alissa is not a fan of fishy seafood flavours, and at first was not entirely sure if she liked this dish, however was a convert by the end. The Prawns and Scallop within were perfectly cooked too, with a good texture without being overdone.
Our main of Rare Roasted Margaret River Venison, Kale, Roasted Beets, Lily Pily was our favourite course of the night. The Venison was cooked perfectly, being so tender that it took no effort to cut, and the jus it sat in had a lovely, sweet spiciness to it. The accompanying Beets provided a complementary earthy sweetness, while the Lily Pily was a nice native twist that worked as an analogue for sour cherries. Dotted around the Venison there was some kind of cinnamon flavoured gel that provided some nice spicy heat, and the Kale hidden beneath the meat was actually quite nice in cooked form, having lost a lot of the usual bitterness I associate with this vegetable.
Another surprise dish, a side of Roast Potatoes, Steamed Beans and Broccoli accompanied our main. These were fantastic - the steamed beans and broccoli were cooked to the perfect level - not raw, but still having a good snap to them. The Royal Blue Roast Potatoes stole the show however, with an amazing super crisp exterior. I've seldom had Roast Potatoes to rival the ones I've made from the Heston at Home cookbook, but these were every bit their equal - and possibly even better.
After a brief break, our Pre Dessert of Mango Parfait with Basil Syrup arrived. This was a really nice frozen parfait of mango, with an interesting twist coming from the Basil Syrup on top. The Basil Syrup contained basil seeds that had swelled up from being soaked, and they had something of the texture of tapioca pearls. This was a good reset of our palates, leading us away from the savouries to our finale course.
The restaurants signature dessert of Bahen Chocolate, Chocolate Emulsion, Chocolate Soil, Salted Caramel, Vanilla Ice Cream was a superb finale. I often complain that chocolate desserts are all richness without any contrast, but this dessert was a master class in chocolate dessert balance. The Chocolate Soil was super rich dark chocolate, however the rest of the components cleverly stayed away from having that same level of richness, preventing the dish from falling into the danger territory of too much chocolate. The crunch of the soil was also texturally contrasted with the softness of the other components, and I particularly enjoyed how flavours of Vanilla, Salted Caramel and a Coconut complemented the primary chocolate flavour.
Finally, Petit Fours of dark and white chocolates were served with our pot of Green Tea. These were decently chocolates that served as a nice end to a memorable meal.
The Verdict: Exceptional
With its focus on Classical European cooking and technique, the food at Cape Lodge could have easily have been staid and a bit old hat, especially when compared to the much more modern cooking at places like Wills Domain and Vasse Felix. Thankfully, Head Chef Michael Elfwing and his team showed just how good Classical Cooking can be in the hands of skilled practitioners, and Alissa and I enjoyed our dinner just as much as we did at the admittedly more innovative Wills Domain. Cooking was flawless and service at a very high standard across the board. At $145 per person, the degustation is one of the more expensive in the region, however if you're looking for a special dinner while in the Margaret River Wine Region, Cape Lodge is hard to beat.