We’re back. Restaurants and bars are again filled to the brim as we’ve emerged, perhaps a little damaged, from that inexplicable year of dining and drinking in solitude.
And I’m back. Eating, and getting to write about it for the first time in more than 12 months.
I think our restaurants are ready for a little fair critique and exposure. After all, we need to get ready for the rest of the world – who’ve been watching us enviously from afar as we’ve come out of the darkness. They’ll be coming, and we’ll be ready, with open arms and seamless menus.
It’s been a tough ride for most people in hospitality, as we’re all completely aware. But none more so than the business owners, especially of those smaller eateries that operate on a whisp of a profit in a good year while peddling their unwavering passion to us – the diners.
My lockdown and shutdown stories are not those of personal tragedy or lost business and they are possibly a little first-world, but as with many of you of the culinary persuasion I utterly missed eating out. And so we cooked, scoured the internet for inspiration, and pulled those dusty cookbooks off the shelf, trying desperately to recreate the dishes of our cooking icons. Home delivery was hit and miss and we could only order so many pizzas or burgers before our eating pants became our regular pants.
It just never felt the same as dining out. But then, as the sun set on another dreary day in the home-office in the middle of last winter and I found myself scrolling the internet in existential dread, a DIY degustation showed up in my feed.
Next stop: www.topiary-dining.com
I ordered, and I waited. And it arrived, delivered in tiny little packages of this and that, with the easiest of instructions to put together the most magical meal I’d eaten in three months. Dishes included delightful slivers of abalone served atop autumn leaves, and pressed confit lamb with beets and borsh and blackened zucchini yogurt, covered with fronds of freshly foraged herbs. This really was Christmas in July. Or was it June? At this point, none of us knew, or particularly cared.
Clearly, owner and chef Kane Pollard had tested, tried and travelled this menu thoroughly to make sure it still stood up after all that DIY fuss. It was restaurant quality; I used the fancy plates. From that point, takeaway containers became a thing of the past. I started ordering from nice restaurants and printing their menus, and even dressing up for our little family dinners.
Slowly but surely things began to look up. And then open up. And now here we are, almost 12 months since that DIY dinner, sitting in the courtyard at Topiary itself, breathing in the freshly scented air of the adjacent Newman’s Nursery and ready to take a stroll through the shorter of two lunch degustations on offer.
First up are generous slices of house-made sourdough with a choice of two spreads. The first is a delicious cultured butter made in house and sprinkled with crumbs of pork crackling; more impressive and utterly moreish is a pepita butter with a smattering of lemon salt- we’re off to a lip-smacking start, just as the series of introductory bites arrive.
Smoked mussels with fermented fennel swim in their own water, served with a soy mayonnaise. A square of haloumi with pickled berries and a mulloway croquette with dill aioli are satisfying mouthfuls but the next bite – parfait with a hollowed-out well filled with quince paste on top of a spent grain lavosh – is the star of the snack round. It’s a simple preparation that satisfies all five taste modalities.
Topiary loves their neighbours, and we love them too. The wine and beverage list generously supports nearby brands, including those burnt by pandemic pressures and also by the December 2019 Cudlee Creek fires just before the world shut up shop. Vinteloper’s 2020 Pinot Gris is another testament to the audacity of these industries and its people: the fresh and balanced wine with a pale pink hue and a textural finish is the perfect match to our series of snacks, and even stands up against the seafood dish to follow.
Pretty as a picture and inspired by this morning’s forage of both hills and ocean, Southern Calamari is prepared delicately and served with crunchy slices of green beans and foraged greens. Complex sweeter and more savoury layers of onion flavour help elevate the dish that sits in a pool of clear, mildly pungent broth.
Beef Carpaccio with an herbaceous stock is served with what appears to be deep-fried beetroot, but on closer inspection are crunchy chips of purple congo potato. Rounds of fresh radish balance the meaty and starchy flavours with a lightly bitter crunch and scattered flower petals make this otherwise sturdy dish seem somewhat delicate.
Pork scotch with sweetcorn is the star of today’s show, perfectly cooked and topped with locally sourced Westside Mushrooms. It’s not the most photogenic of dishes but what it lacks in beauty, it makes up for in all other areas, another display of the talent in the kitchen who have managed to weave earthen smoky flavours into this tasty pound of flesh.
Speaking of the kitchen, there’s just one notable thing missing at Topiary – and that’s owner and chef Pollard. Amid the closures, he’s left his little foothills oasis and taken up a new post in the concrete jungle, as the executive chef at Sol restaurant in Eos by SkyCity. His presence and signature style can still be felt as his kitchen team successfully execute each of his dishes, under the watch of new Topiary recruit chef Alex Payne. Payne delivers the last dish for the day- an old favourite dessert with its autumnal variation aptly named ‘Fallen Leaves’.
It’s a cheesecake of sorts, but not as we typically know it. Another artistic plate that pays homage to the season, the last of this year’s strawberries are prepared as fruit leather that act as the leaves atop this beautiful dish. A dome of cheesecake filling encases a strawberry centre, and it transports me back to last winter’s DIY dinner as I greedily scraped the last of the strawberry filling combined with a toasty granola crumble, savouring the final bite of this sensational stroll.
1361 North East Road, Tea Tree Gully (within the grounds of Newman’s Nursery)
Ph: 8263 0818
Monday to Friday: 9am to 3pm
Saturday: 9am to 4pm, dinner from 6pm
Sunday: 9am to 4pm
This is the first in a new series of reviews from Paul Wood – InReview’s restaurant critic. He works in the food, beverage and wine business as an industry development consultant and was The Adelaide Review’s food writer for seven years.