Two years ago, Alissa and I visited Rockcliffe Winery for lunch. Back then, their cellar door restaurant was Silas Masih's Pepper & Salt - arguably the best and most interesting restaurant in Denmark - and Masih's spice-driven fusion cuisine combined with the ambiance of Rockcliffe's idyllic vineyards and gardens made for a very satisfying, lazy afternoon in the South West. By the end of that year, Pepper & Salt had moved out of Rockcliffe to take up residence at Forest Hill. I understood the move - Forest Hill's grand dining room is one of the best you're likely to find at any of WA's best cellar door restaurants, but I felt a bit sorry for Rockcliffe in a way, and hoped that the restaurant space would once again house a restaurant worthy of its setting.
Michela Cimnaghi - a friend of the blog, and a communication and social media strategist who had done some work for Rockcliffe - suggested we visit Petite Villaine, Rockcliffe's newly opened share plate-oriented restaurant, run by chefs Nicky Crosby and Kym Nayda. Seeing some fairly whimsically named dishes - including a fairly incredible looking Pork Belly dish - we decided to add Petite Villaine to our list of places to check out.
Being a last minute addition to our itinerary, Alissa and I walked in without a reservation. Although a lot of tables were already booked out, there were enough tables still available that this was not a problem. As luck would have it, Alissa and I were sat in the exact same spot that we had been in when we visited Pepper & Salt two years earlier, with the above view of the garden for us to look out at.
Impressively, the menu at Petite Villaine is 100% gluten free and consists of larger tasting plate platters and smaller tapas size dishes with culinary influences from all over the globe. The wines on offer are naturally from the Rockcliffe stable, however with excellent examples of good food friendly varietals like Pinot Noir and Riesling on offer, the limitation is far less of a problem than it can be at Margaret River wineries.
Wanting to try a good selection of dishes, we decided to focus on the smaller share plates. The first dish to arrive was Lamb Kawarma - Spiced Lamb, Hummus, Pine Nuts, Parsley, Lemon Oil. Something of a share plate classic, the Middle Eastern combination of lamb and hummus is a sure fire winning combination. The lamb here was nice and succulent with a richness of spice rubbed flavour and a nice crust. The Hummus was well made, and tasted smoother on the palate than the picture suggests. The addition of Pine Nuts upped the buttery richness of the dish, and made for excellent start to the meal.
Drunken Crab Cakes with Fermented Coconut, Tequila, Chilli Pickle followed. Alissa and I debated as to whether or not this was worth the asking price given that its more subtle flavours made it the dish that stood out the least. When I've been served Crab Cakes in the past I've had something that was closer to a Crab Croquette, and I think a Croquette would have been more impressive, and maintained the nice flaky sweetness of the crab meat. This was more like a Thai Fish Cake - which was fine - but it didn't stand out as being that much of an improvement over minced fish. We agreed that the best component was the Fermented Coconut, Tequila and Chilli Pickle, which was very flavoursome and helped elevated the Crab Cakes. Overall this was still a decent enough dish, however I think we would order the Snapper Taco instead if we were going for a seafood dish next time.
The whimsically named Omnomnom Nom Nom Nom came next, and is the restaurant's very worthy signature dish of Pork Belly cooked with a treacly secret recipe Plum Sauce. Petite Villaine had us at Pork Belly and they did not let us down, as the perfectly cooked, soft and unctuous Pork Belly was glazed in the deliciously sweet, salty stickiness of the Plum Sauce. The Sauce was just incredible - Alissa and I couldn't help wanting to dip things in it so we could eat as much of it as possible. Alissa and I have had a lot of different Pork Belly dishes in our time with the Ministry, and this was right up there with the best.
Next to the table were the Onion Uthapaams - Fermented Lentil and Rice Cake, Coriander, Eggplant Chutney. Kind of like a very thick Dosa or a flattened Vada, the Uthapaams showed the kitchen had an understanding of Indian flavours. The onion and coriander of the Uthapaams was nice, however it mainly served as a vehicle for the even better Eggplant Chutney, which was easily the best component on the plate. Alissa and I felt having a breadier carbohydrate-based dish like this in the mix was a good idea - as much as Omnomnom Nom Nom Nom was an obvious star, dishes like these are the ones that help make for a filling meal. This was a good vegetable-oriented dish that would please omnivores and vegetarians alike.
That said, Far Out Brussel Sprout - Roasted Brussels, Pine Nuts, Red Onion, Smoked Paprika Mayo - was an even better vegetarian dish. This was really interesting; I'd never thought of putting a Chipotle-style Smoked Paprika Mayo on Brussel Sprouts before, but it really worked. Thinking about it however, it all made sense - Brussel Sprouts and Bacon and are a classic salad combo, and the Smoked Paprika worked as an all-vegetable analogue for the bacon. As much as I love bacon, its absence allowed the meatiness of Brussel Sprouts to really shine.
One dessert between us would have probably sufficed, however we decided to order individual choices as Alissa and I had our eyes on two very different desserts. Alissa's choice was Chai Vanilla Milkshake, Buckwheat Spekulaas, Vanilla Panna Cotta. With Alissa's Dutch heritage, Spekulaas is definitely up her alley, and she absolutely loved this dessert. The Chai Vanilla Milkshake was nice and creamy, with a good level of sweetness that allowed it to pair well with the spicy Spekulaas. The Panna Cotta was also impressively well made, with a good wobble thanks to the right level of gelatine being used and a nice vanilla flavour.
When the waitress brought out the dish, she commented that the darkness of the Spekulaas can be disconcerting for some, however it proved to be the best component on the plate. Unsure as to how to describe it, Alissa said she didn't want to say it was bitter, however there was a certain 'darkness' to its flavour not unlike rye bread. This 'darkness' backed up the usual spicy heat of the cinnamon, nutmeg and clove that gives Spekulaas its distinctive flavour, and marked it as a take on a classic that was at once recognisable while being distinctive.
My choice of dessert was also driven by cultural heritage. Rice, Rice, Baby - Glutinous Red Rice, Pink Pepper Poached Nectarine, Coco Yoghurt - sounded a lot like a take on Pulut Hitam, a favourite childhood dessert (or, of course, a Vanilla Ice song). By the Pulut Hitam measure, I didn't quite like what I tasted on my first bite as it did not taste like what I was expecting. The rice itself was not as sweet as Pulut Hitam and it had quite a different cardamom-forward flavour profile. Finding it a bit tasteless, I decided to mix everything together. That's when the dish came into focus; having the coconut flavour and creaminess of the Coconut Yoghurt mixed into the rice brought it closer to the flavour of Pulut Hitam, while the Poached Nectarine gave the dish the right balance of sweetness and bright, pleasing acidity. This ended up being quite a delicious dessert that was something like Pulut Hitam without actually being the same dessert.
The Verdict: Excellent
In spite of being a last minute addition to our holiday schedule, Petite Villiane left a strong impression. It is a worthy successor to Pepper & Salt at the Rockcliffe Cellar Door as there is something of Silas's fusion style on display here, but Nicky and Kym have strong enough voices to put their own individual stamp on this kind of cuisine. Indeed, the menu's very international hodge podge of ideas and flavours came together in such a way that the menu felt of a piece - very impressive considering the restaurant had only been open for 11 weeks at the time of our visit. And the staff were really friendly and clearly passionate about what they do, with Nicky and Kym even giving us recommendations of some obscure places to check out in the area.
With food that is totally on trend and in keeping with the style of share plate food that has dominated the Perth dining scene in the last few years, Petite Villaine are definitely part of a statewide Zeitgeist. The challenge for them will be that many local diners in regional areas can be more easily swayed by generous serving sizes, and the small plates idea is still a bit untested in the region. The larger platters on the menu address this somewhat, and being the only 100% gluten free restaurant is also in their favour. Time will tell how successful they will be, but for now this is definitely a regional up and comer to watch, and I look forward to seeing how they develop over future visits.