One of the great pleasures of wintertime in Western Australia is Truffle Season. Home to the largest producer of Black Truffles in the world, restaurants throughout Perth get in on the gift of the season with truffle-oriented dishes and even entire menus devoted to the Black Truffle - everyone ranging from fine dining stalwarts like 1907 right down to more casual eateries like Old Faithful. Such is the quality of Manjimup Truffles that they've been spruiked by chefs as influential as Heston Blumenthal and David Chang, and even the French are actually importing our Truffles for their off-season.
Manjimup then is definitely a place worth visiting during Truffle Season, especially given the long table dinners of the Truffle and Wine Co's annual Truffle Kerfuffle Festival. With the Truffle and Wine Co's cellar door cafe opened throughout the year, Alissa and I were curious to know what they would be serving in early January, considering its the exact opposite time of the year from their season. With most blog posts we could find online related to events held during Truffle Kerfuffle and not actually about the Truffle Hill Gourmet Cafe, we decided this was something worth investigating.
Located a short distance out of the Manjimup town centre, the Truffle and Wine Co's cellar door features much of the idyllic country charm one would expect from a cellar door in the South West, complete with well manicured lawns and nice shady trees.
Alissa and I were a bit early for their lunch service, and the waitress offered that we could order some coffees while we waited. We decided to sit outside, and soon we were having our late morning coffee while taking in the scenery and appreciating the mild weather.
Alissa had wanted a tasting plate the day before at Lakeside Restaurant before I persuaded her that it would be mostly sourced rather than made in house, so it was only fair that we ordered the Truffle Delight Cheese Platter as our entree. Well priced at $30 for two, the board was indeed a Truffle Delight, containing no less that 4 truffle oriented components. The generously portioned cheeses on the plate were a Blue, very good Parmesan, a decent Camembert and an aged Cheddar, accompanied by a very good Live Pate, Truffle Butter, Crackers, Bread and Sliced Apples. On the accompanying board were Truffle Aioli, Olives, Mushroom and Truffle Tapenade, Sundied Tomatoes, Hazelnut Dukkah and Truffle Oil. Most of the time when it comes to these kind of plates, its hard to judge it as anything other than a sourcing job, however a lot of the component were actually made in house. The House made Hazelnut Dukkah was a case in point; with nice spiciness, it combined the nuts from the trees the truffles grow beneath with the flavour of the Truffle Oil. The combo was a delicious revelation far better than the more traditional Dukkah and Olive Oil, and something I'm keen to replicate should we ever serve Dukkah at home. Even better however was the Mushroom and Truffle Tapenade; with its earthy, umami rich flavour, this was truly excellent, and Alissa and I picked up a bottle from the cellar door to take home.
For a main, Alissa went with the one of their Daily Specials - a Steak Sandwich with Chips and Truffle Aioli. The Sandwich was a good size without being overly huge, in a baguette that looked a bit lightly baked and then charred on a grill for a crisp crust. The most important part of a Steak Sandwich is undoubtedly the steak, and the cafe's steak was deliciously tender and well seasoned. Our friend Ben Basell, a noted Steak Sandwich aficionado, criticized both Cafe 140 in Bunbury and the otherwise excellent Merrywell in Perth for being stingy on the fresh vegetable front. Truffle Hill Gourmet Cafe's version did not have such problems, with the very tasty tomato, crispy lettuce and truffle aoili working in tandem with the tender meat for an overall enjoyable experience. While the chips were fairly stock-standard frozen mass productions, they were redeemed by the Truffle Aioli's deliciously umami flavour.
Wanting a generous shaving of truffles on top of whatever dish I ordered, I went with the Pizza with Kale, Mushroom, Chilli and Grated Truffle for my main. This was a good one person serve of pizza in the 'toppings are the most important part' style of pizza, as opposed to the more balanced base first approach of places like Neighbourhood Pizza in Perth and Swings Taphouse in Margaret River.
In this style, the toppings could not be faulted - the combination of the Mushrooms, very generous shaving of Black Truffles, the crispiness of the Kale and the fluffy creaminess of the ricotta were deliciously decadent. Unfortunately, the pizza was let down by a less impressive base; where the slightly underbaked bread in the Steak Sandwich worked to its benefit by making it nice and soft, here the blondness of the base was a hindrance, lacking the nice golden crunch of a perfect wood fired base while making it susceptible to sogginess from the liquid in the ricotta. The toppings were tasty enough that this was still a very good dish, however had these toppings been presented on a better base, it would have been that much more satisfying.
By this stage, we were pretty full and unfortunately we didn't have space for their intriguing truffle-filled desserts like Truffle and White Chocolate Baked Cheesecake and Truffle Vanilla Ice Cream. Truffles are awesome in desserts, so it will have to be something for us to consider in our game plan next time.
The Verdict: Very Good
6 months away from the peak of 2016's Truffle Season, our lunch at Truffle Hill Gourmet Cafe was a real treat, with every dish featuring the delicious umami flavour of the Black Truffle. The Truffle Delight Cheese Platter was particularly impressive, and although the base of my pizza lessened the impact of the otherwise truffle-filled dish, both our mains were very enjoyable. Considering the fact Black Truffle-oriented menus are usually quite expensive, the dishes on offer were all very well priced, with all three dishes around the $30 mark. Granted, the Truffle & Wine Co have the luxury of digging these up rather than paying for them, but its nice that they've kept prices reasonable. I can imagine the food being even more impressive when Truffles are actually in season, and I'd love to come back for another meal during the appropriate season. Until then, the cellar door stocks frozen Truffles and Truffle-based products to sate our appetites until wintertime comes around.