Country pubs and hotels around the state are being updated, upgraded and renovated at a rapid rate. Some are modernised in a homogenised fashion, but others are more thoughtfully redesigned and refurbished to maintain heritage features, character, and most importantly, soul.
Up the rickety side staircase and through the temporary top floor entry and into Norton Summit’s Scenic Hotel, it’s immediately obvious that the fairly new owners have taken the latter approach. The Scenic’s soul is obvious, and its personality is already peeking through recent, subtle renovations.
An outside seating and dining area has been carved out of the side of the hill and retained in old stone, with a gravelled path snaking between picnic tables that sit beneath party lights. A fabulous space that bucks another trend of a traditional courtyard or beer garden; this has a more open, almost whimsical feel about it.
As we swing open the doors, Johnny Cash plays on the stereo. To our right, there’s an empty salon bar complete with pool table and a solid bar, low ceilings and polished wood floors. It looks like this has been given a lick of paint with warm tones of a green scheme that brightens as it flows through to the adjacent dining area to our left. This section is far from empty, despite it being a cold mid-week night.
Hills types stopping in for a bite mix and mingle with tables filled with enthusiastic metro-diners who have already heard the whispers about this new quiet achiever. They’ve been working on something special here. In fact, they’re still working – with downstairs closed for some quick renovations. I’m told they’ll be done real soon.
But now, we’re off to a table by the crackling fireplace tucked around the side where we realise that the name of this place says it all, with remarkable views out over the twinkling lights of the city below. Not too far below though: while we’re nestled in the deep side of the hills in the heart of Norton Summit we’re only fifteen minutes from the inner eastern suburbs. This is a hike we can all make easily.
We’re encouraged to order the cheddar croquettes with piccalilli. I discover that piccalilli is the other name given to the old and faithful mustard pickle, and learn that the Brits stole this style from a traditional South Asian pickle many moons ago. This one reminds me of Spring Gully’s version only better, much better. It’s fresh and it’s ever so slightly crunchy and zingy and even a little bit sour. It’s delicious. I use a slice of the nearby Lost Loaf sourdough to greedily mop up the leftovers when the crispy and cheesy croquettes are complete.
And then the soldiers come marching in, topped with Ortiz Anchovies and a secret house-made green sauce (ingredients unknown, but it certainly tastes like the finest combination of greens, emulsified into a smooth paste) with a sliver of lemon atop each soldier to add a little bite. And bite we do. Over and over under there’s naught left but our bewildered senses.
Southern fried chicken is up next and boy, does it look good. Tastes good too. Bound by wild desire we demolish this succulent deep-fried dish, thighs, wings and all, dunked in Mississippi comeback sauce and interchanged with some big ol’ slices of pickle.
In another show of confidence, the scenic puts a familiar spin on a French classic that could be seen as culinary appropriation if it wasn’t so damn enjoyable. This is Flank Steak Tartare made using the freshest melange of meat and herbs, scooped into a sliced-open packet of Smith’s Crisps. Salt is used sparingly in the minced star centre, allowing the extra salty chips to do the work in that area. It’s definitely about balance, but mostly it’s about fun.
Walking the line between nostalgia and cheesy, the kitchen plays its next retro-move: Taramasalata dip served with Jatz crackers. You heard it, Jatz. As someone whose only artistic skill is arranging platter food on decadent boards, I’m feeling a little conflicted at this point. Why not Crispbread? or Lavosh? Or more of that Lost Loaf bread? Can they really go this far?
They do. And again it works. This is another complementary discussion of flavour versus salt and it’s at the end of these appetisers that I’m learning to ignore my preconceptions and just run with it. Jatz, good. Smith’s Crisps, better.
Today’s gnocchi is made using a fresh harvest of wild (fancy) mushrooms. Foraged from the surrounding hillsides these are bursting with a woody flavour that stands up against the blue cheese sauce. Raddichio completes the dish and adds crunch, freshness and a nice touch of bitterness. This is hearty but very well balanced and avoids that typical heaviness despite the combination of ingredients.
Next it’s steak, eggs and chips done country-fancy: 300 grams of grass-fed sirloin is cooked to a medium-rare, sliced down the centre and presented with the inside facing upwards – a cook’s trick I’ve used before to ensure the correct doneness. A fried egg cooked sunny-side up with crispy edges and some moreish fat fries sit alongside quenelles of condiments – one akin to an unadulterated gravy and the other creamier and spicier thanks to added horseradish.
There’s an air of sustainability in this menu- the kitchen clearly thinks slightly outside the box and aims to minimise waste, obvious through sauces and condiments used in various dishes like those above but also through star ingredients. Take the Roo schnitzel, for example. We’re seeing these on more and more menus, and I think it’s time we think about alternatives to the over-farmed and over-produced. Yesterday’s bread is blitzed and used in a bread sauce gravy (delicious) and they even have a vinaigrette sourced from nearby Jauma winery to splash across their salad. I’ve said it once and now I’ll say it again: there is no such thing as leftover wine.
Someone’s Grandma taught whoever made dessert very well, and the taste of love is sweet. This is the stickiest of toffee puddings – the kind that sticks your teeth together but in the best way, up-specced slightly with added crème fraiche. Another nostalgic delight, it’s even served in Nanna’s best vintage bowls, matching most of the flatware tonight.
When it comes to country pubs, I’ve been almost everywhere (man) and it’s clear from this visit to The Scenic that a true classic really never does go out of style.
The Scenic Hotel
Old Norton Summit Rd, Norton Summit
(08) 7320 1610
Lunch: Thursday to Saturday, 12pm – 2:30pm; Sunday “lazy long lunch”, 12-7.30pm
Dinner: Wednesday to Saturday, 5-8pm
Read more of Paul Wood’s restaurant reviews here.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.