They may be the driving force behind Adelaide’s small bar revolution, but it’s still rare to find a “sommelier-led” restaurant. That’s how it is, however, at McLaren Flat’s Currant Shed, where former Orana and Magill Estate sommelier Josh Picken has taken charge.
The Currant Shed is also a story of how a comfortable but not very distinguished joint in a regional backwater can evolve into a contemporary, stylish restaurant that more than justifies a 40-minute drive from the city.
The Currant Shed’s story begins exactly 100 years ago, in 1916, when it was indeed an open-sided shed for drying the grapes and currants grown in the paddocks all around it for export to Britain.
The rundown property was bought in the mid-70s by Peter and Anthea Hoffmann who, over time, developed a wine label with a little help from the neighbouring Shottesbrooke winery. Their idea, as with many other wineries around the state, was to restore the old drying shed as a small regional restaurant in which to show off their wine. Probably very few people outside the McLaren Vale region knew it was there.
When the Hoffmans decided it was time to retire, they asked Shottesbrooke winemaker Hamish McGuire and his partner Emily Dowie if they’d like to take over. The timing was right. Emily at that time was working as restaurant manager at the Star of Greece restaurant at Port Willunga, and she and Hamish were keen to have their own restaurant business.
And so the Currant Shed began the next stage of its life. Word started to spread, customers from further afield started to arrive. But the next, and most formative stage, was yet to come.
Picken had grown up at Port Willunga, where his father worked in the local wine industry, and after a visit to the Star of Greece with his dad, the then proprietors Zanny Twopeny and John Garcia offered him a job as a kitchenhand. Picken was 16 at the time but he stayed there for the next nine years, progressing through the kitchen to working on the floor – which is where he met Emily Dowie.
After a trip to New York at the invitation of some American sommeliers, Picken decided that was the career for him and very quickly he found himself working at Magill Estate. He then worked briefly at Penny’s Hill winery until the then Magill Estate executive chef Jock Zonfrillo sought him out and brought him back there as its head sommelier.
When Zonfrillo and pretty much all of his team decamped to open Orana, Picken went with them and found himself with the challenging task of matching wines with Zonfrillo’s original, native produce-focussed dishes. His perceptive and occasionally daring wine matches helped put Orana on the culinary map in a big way.
Along the way Picken had dined at the Currant Shed several times but it was a visit with his girlfriend, after he’d decided it was time to move on from Orana, that he says alerted him to what he describes as “the massive potential” of the restaurant.
“With the closing of Fino in Willunga, I could see the need for McLaren Vale to have a new destination restaurant,” he says. “The property has an amazing kitchen garden that reminds me so much of Brae and Provenance in Victoria, even of the French Laundry in California. I thought that if I could capture this with ingredients from the Southern Fleurieu and bespoke wines I could really see myself working here.”
So began a negotiation with Hamish and Emily that has led to investment in new chairs and tables – tables in American oak from the Jam Factory’s Matt Taylor, chairs made by Chris Hardy in Melbourne – stylish cutlery, Riedel glassware and crockery from South Australian artisans.
Just as significantly, a new head chef, Dioni Flanagan, joined the team. Her cooking is now so well crafted you have to ask where has she been all these years, so low has she flown under the radar. In fact, in the past 25 years she’s been all over the place, working with Salvatore Pepe at Cibo, Panacea, Mantra on King William and Penny’s Hill among others.
Flanagan, who grew up on the west coast in a family that loved its food, is self-taught, married to another chef, Joe (who also tends the extensive Currant Shed veggie garden) and says she learnt simply by “playing” with food. Her idea of playdough led to an early interest in patisserie and baking – the fresh wholemeal sourdough rolls she serves with Hindmarsh Valley cultured butter, sprinkled with shiraz-flavoured salt, are one result.
The Currant Shed melds almost invisibly into its landscape, a low-slung building in the lee of a hill, Shiraz vineyard to one side, Cab sav on the other. A tiny courtyard separates a glass-encased private dining room from the main restaurant, which you could probably describe as sophisticated rustic. There are polished concrete floors, a salute to the ’70s with its straw ceiling and ceiling fans, a wall of corrugated iron and a great sense of being close to the outdoors – lots of light and a plastic curtained side wall that overlooks an immaculately groomed orchard of lime trees.
Not surprisingly, lime juice crops up more than once on the menu – first in the complementary Coffin Bay oyster served with a smidge of tapioca and chilli, plus wafer-thin squid ink and smoked eel crisps. A second complementary taste arrives: curly sweet potato and rice crackers with fluffy, aerated and whipped Paris Creek blue cheese – a generous and tantalising start to the meal.
The five entrée dishes include crumbed Port Lincoln sardines (pictured top) served with toasted pistachios, a smear of jammy cumquat emulsion and the fresh green crunchiness of iceplant – a sea vegetable that was regarded as a weed where Flanagan grew up. Native ingredients such as this crop up throughout her menu, not as a feature ingredient but quite naturally as a now accepted, if not necessary, addition to a modern chef’s repertoire.
You can happily leave it to Picken to choose the appropriate wine – in this case a Barringwood Schönburger from Tasmania, like a cross between Pinot gris and Gewurztraminer. He follows this with a Petit verdot from Langhorne Creek label Autopilot to go with slices of quickly seared kangaroo fillet, rolled in crushed native pepperberry and served on sautéed baby spinach with hazelnuts and a mulberry reduction.
Pickens’ sommelier’s skill shows in his choice of a 10-year-old Madeira to accompany ocean trout, cured in lime juice and served warm. Its texture has collapsed a little, but the flavour combination with a tangle of wood fungus and a smoky shiitake and dashi broth is terrific.
From the five main courses on offer there’s Spencer Gulf sand whiting, panfried and served on a bed of warrigal greens and celeriac puree, with chunks of fried celeriac and a slender gilled baby leek. Picken matches this well with one of the house wines, a Shottesbrooke Chardonnay.
A cool-climate Adelaide Hills Shiraz, from Meadows-based Karrawatta, is perfect with chunks of slow-braised lamb shoulder and slices of pan-seared lamb rump that comes with fresh peas and pea wafers on a light jus with Hindmarsh Valley fetta and crumbled dehydrated olives. Well-balanced flavours, perfectly cooked.
Desserts give Picken an opportunity to bring out another Shottesbrooke wine, a botrytis Sauvignon blanc whose luscious acidity goes exceptionally well with an ultra-fresh crumbly shortcrust tart filled with lime curd, topped with a scoop of coconut sorbet, sitting on a swirl of torched meringue. It really is very good indeed and manages to shade an alternative cider infused baba that comes with slices of pickled walnut, dobs of Italian custard and a reduced apple sauce.
Flanagan’s fondness for patisserie shows here, and if this is her idea of “playing with food”, then please, play on.
The Currant Shed
104 Ingoldby Road, McLaren Flat, 8383 0232
Open for lunch Thursday to Tuesday (closed Wednesday)
Two courses $55, three courses $70 (food only)
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