When it comes to restaurant reservations, I like to make them as far ahead of time as possible. In planning our January 2015 road trip through the South West, reservations at Laundry 43, Wills Domain and Cape Lodge were booked by August to avoid the mad scramble for a table over the high demand first weekend of the New Year. When double checking our bookings and collating our confirmation emails for our files, I discovered that I'd made a serious error - I'd booked Wills Domain for our first day instead of our second, meaning we'd have to drive past Busselton to Yallingup, double back to Busselton for our dinner at Laundry 43 and then double back even further the next day to cover the things we'd planned for Day 1 in Geographe. With Wills Domain once again announced as the West Australian Good Food Guide's Regional Restaurant of the Year in the interim, changing our booking was not going to be possible - especially since we booked an extended sitting for the degustation - so we decided to drive the extra distance and enjoy our meal and the winery's stunning views a day ahead of schedule.
The Wills Domain tasting menu comes in at $99 for 7 courses, with a broth and cheese course supplement available for an additional $13 and $10 respectively. Considering their reputation and the inevitable extra courses that come with tasting menus, this seemed very competitively priced and in keeping with their relatively casual vibe. Albeit limited to wines of the estate, the wine pairing is a bargain at $40 (plus a $5 supplement for the additional courses). As such, Alissa and I decided to go for a paired 8 courses, deciding to skip the tempting Marron broth while adding on the cheese course. I should add that the current head chef Seth James is still a fairly new addition, however having spent 3 years at Melbourne's Cutler & Co and maintained (and even improved) Wills Domain's standing in the transition, we had high hopes we were in for a real treat.
The meal began with the obligatory serving of bread. The Wills Domain bread was baked as muffin tin rolls, with a pleasingly umami parmesan flavour permeating the bread. With its crunchy, crusty exterior and soft and moist interior, this was very good bread and a good start.
Listed simply as Snacks, our waiter brought out three Amuse Bouches, with the first two being a plate of Kale and Wattle Chips, and puffed up Beef Tendon with a Tasmanian Pepper Mousse. Kale chips are not among my favourite things to eat, however these were a good take on this hipster favourite, being neither overly oily or too bitter. The Beef Tendon was even better, its prawn cracker-like crunch and crispiness being paired really well with the rich, creamy and peppery flavour of the mousse quenelle.
Our final snack of Dill Cured Trout on a crispy Trout Skin was easily the best, and one of the most beautiful dishes in a meal filled with strong contenders, baring a similarity in plating style to restaurants like Cutler & Co and Eleven Madison Park. It was a dish of clever variations on a theme of seafood and pickles, with the marine flavour of the Cured Trout and Trout Skin bolstered by Tasmanian Caviar Crème fraîche, while fine slivers of pickled gherkin helped bring out the flavour of the Dill Cure. With the crunch from the Trout Skin to complement the softness of the Cured Trout and the sprigs and borage flowers to round it out, it was a dish as delicious as it was pretty.
The first true course of the meal continued with the seafood theme. Cured Swordfish, Cucumber, Lemon and Black Rye was a surprise; swordfish can be very fishy, and yet the curing process gave it milder, pleasing flavour. The cubes of Lemon Curd were also not what we expected, having a delicate, silken tofu-like consistency and a nice citrussy flavour that went well with the anise flavour of the finely sliced fennel. With the Black Rye pieces providing crunch, Alissa felt the dish work almost as a savoury Lemon Meringue Pie due to the fresh acidity and sweetness. Given Alissa's dislike for extremely fishy flavours and a love for sweet treats, this was quite high praise.
A really earthy course of Organic Carrots, Quinoa, Puffed Grains and Smoked Yoghurt followed. The baby carrots were cooked in their skins before peeled, and the result highlighted the quality of the produce used, while long ribbons of pickled purple carrot provided a contrasting take on the same vegetable with good acidity. The blend of wild rice, puffed rice and quinoa had a nice nutty flavour that worked well with the carrots, and showed off how tasty these grains can be when removed from their health faddishness. The floral note of the violet flavours and the intensely peppery flavour of the micro rocket helped round out the dish, however it was the Smoked Yoghurt that really made the dish for Alissa and I, with the creamy smokiness reminding us of the Smoked Curd used by Ben Shewry in his famous A Potato Cooked In The Ground In Which It Was Grown (not served to us when we visited Attica, however we attempted the dish at our Attica at Home dinner). It was so good and went so well with the nuttiness of the rice that I saved it for my last mouthful, and the wooden Semillon that was paired with this course was one of the best pairings of the entire meal.
Fine dining takes on Fish and Chips are always interesting, and Dhufish, Silken Cuttlefish, Lettuce and Grapefruit was every bit the equal of the decidedly different version served at Vue de Monde in Melbourne. The Dhufish was perfectly cooked, being soft enough to cut with little to no effort, and a nice contrast with the crispiness of the hash brown-like Potato Galette. The Grapefruit Sauce provided a nice sour, bitter and sweet accompaniment, however the Lettuce and Silken Cuttlefish were the most unusual and interesting elements on the plate. Located underneath the fish, the lettuce had apparently been grilled and then pureed, resulting in a flavour that was surprisingly delicious. The Silken Cuttlefish, appearing like a sheet of gel draped over the fish, had a delicious, distinctly marine flavour due to the use of Squid/Cuttlefish ink. It was hard to work out just how they actually made it - was it minced, mixed with the ink and then extruded as a sheet with meat glue perhaps or something more straightforward? - but it was undoubtedly tasty, and had a striking appearance on the plate.
Unfortunately not photographed, a palate cleansing drink was served next, made with Fermented Apple Skins, Egg Whites and Soda Water. This was pretty incredible, with a sweet, spritzy and creamy flavour that reminded Alissa and I of the fizzy lolly necklaces and bracelets we used to eat as children mixed with the flavour of apple cider vinegar.
I'm not known as a fan of beef (and I do still have environmental issues with cattle farming), however the Margaret River Wagyu Rump, Kohlrabi, Infant Onion and XO was one of the best cooked and most flavoursome beef dishes I've tried. Rump can be quite tough in lesser hands, however the well marbled meat and (presumably) sous-vide cooking method resulted in meat of incredible tenderness, with a nice crust around the outside. The sauce on the plate tasted very similar to the chilli sauce used to cook chilli crab in Singapore - a nice, welcome surprise. The 'Infant' Onions on the plate were very rich in onion flavour, with the dehydrated roots being the most intensely flavoured. The puree, presumably the Kohlrabi, was a hard flavour to pick, however it work much as a Cauliflower Puree would. All combined, the dish was a worthy main. By this stage however, the wine was beginning to take its toll - while not inebriated, the full serving pours (rather than tasting pours) were becoming a bit much, and with more to come we drank about a quarter of our glass before having to set it aside. We were glad that we had not done the tasting beforehand!
Heidi Raclette, Buckwheat and Onion Essence served as our cheese course. This was an awesome, chameleon-like cheese that at times tasted like a stinky, ripe Brie, sometimes like a Emmental and at other times resembling Cheddar. The vinegary onion sauce was nice and acidic, and with the long ribbons of pear resulted in a dish that was a nice mix of salty, sour, sweet and umami all at once. The wine pairing of Scheurebe was easily one of the best of the entire meal, with a nice off dry sweetness and pronounced acidity that revealed its relation to Riesling - our favourite white varietal.
Chocolate and Beetroot are a modern classic combination, and the dessert of Chocolate, Beetroot and Caraway was an impressive chocolate dessert - and that's saying a lot as I'm not usually a fan of chocolate desserts. All the chocolate components were well made and balanced, being assertive while not overly rich. The blob of honey on the side provided a nice sweet hit, while the elegant ribbons of beetroot provided a nice, fresh crunch. It all worked together very well, however what I was most appreciative of was that Wills Domain served this as the penultimate dessert; I find finishing on a chocolate dessert a bit much at the best of times, and having a lighter, fruitier dessert to follow is a something I'd like to see more often.
A surprise palate cleanser of Coriander, Mint, Parsley and Orange Sorbet was brought out, providing a nice, fresh and citrussy reset. While fairly simple, the flavours were so effective Alissa said she'd have been satisfied with this as the final course.
I love berry desserts, and Fig Leaf, Strawberries and Oats was the perfect refreshing and light finale to the meal. The Fig Ice Cream was fruity, sweet and flavoursome without being cloying...
... and the Elderflower Mousse gave the proceedings a nice floral note. The Elderflower flavour was boosted by the inclusion of fresh elderflowers and there was something about its flavour that reminded me of Pulut Hitam (black rice pudding). With the tart and sweet berries to round it out, we ended our meal very satisfied.
The Verdict: Exceptional
Alissa and I were thoroughly impressed by our meal at Wills Domain. There was not a single weak dish on the Tasting Menu - it was easily one of the best meals we've had in the South West, and would hold its own against many of Perth's best restaurants in terms of both quality and price. The influence of Andrew McConnell's Cutler & Co can be seen in the pretty plating and restrained Modernism, however Seth James's has a strong enough individual voice so as to not make this a carbon copy of the Melbourne fine dining mainstay. My only criticism is that while the pairing is great value - especially considering the generous pours - the wine was a bit more variable for my tastes, with some like the Semillon and the Scheurebe being outstandingly well paired, while at times the limitation of being a winery restaurant felt like an obvious hindrance as access to cooler climate wines might have been preferable in some instances. This is an understandable trade off of course, and is the reason why they can keep their pairing price so reasonable. Overall, Wills Domain lived up to the hype and is worthy of a strong recommendation.