Last month I ate a plate of char-grilled broccolini at Millbrook – a winery restaurant in postcard-perfect Jarrahdale, about an hour by car from the Perth CBD. I began to wonder: would giving up meat be so terrible?
If all vegetables boomed with as much earthy savour and crunch as these lightly blackened green paintbrushes, absolutely not. Admittedly, the vividly bright salsa verde served with these winter brassicas did not suck, but much of the broccolini’s appeal can be chalked up to the simple fact that, two hours before they hit the table, the plants were minding their own business in the restaurant’s kitchen garden. Fresh? You bet.
At a time when so many people like to talk the #seasonal and #localproduce talk, it’s heartening to find a chef that not only walks the walk, but plants the plants that underwrite her or his (actual) seasonal menu. This piece might be part of Broadsheet’s Restaurants of Australia series, but it’s impossible to talk about Millbrook the restaurant without also praising its sprawling garden. Guy Jeffreys, Millbrook’s head chef and head gardener, certainly can’t, at least.
“We don’t buy fruit and vegetables,” reads a note at the top of the menu from Jeffreys to diners. “Our 90-year-old orchard and heirloom vegetable garden, which is grown from last year’s saved seeds, writes the menu for us.”
The garden’s level of menu-writing involvement varies with the seasons. In summer, for example, it might supply the kitchen with a steady stream of sweet and tangy tomatoes in a galaxy of colours and sizes, or by commanding zucchini plants to erupt in a colourful display of pert fruit and vivid yellow flowers that the kitchen will grill or tempura-fry, respectively.
In winter, its avocado trees might yield creamy fuerto specimens that successfully swipe right with savoury granola and house-made cottage cheese. I can still remember a vivid vegetable “tartare”, crunchy and bright and studded with colourful pieces of finely diced Romanesco cauliflower: a fractal-esque vegetable that looks like the sort of thing you might find at a Klingon farmer’s market.
If it wasn’t already obvious, Jeffreys is a chef who’s not only proud of what he grows (“The Millbrook garden is the same as my backyard garden at home, just times 100. Everything’s done by hand, just on a lot larger scale. Plus I’ve got more friends coming over for lunch each day.”), he also likes treating his fruit and veg with a light touch once they’re out of the ground. He’s confident enough to serve fresh chickpeas straight off the feathery bushes they grow on alongside local tuna preserved in-house in salt and—
Wait, tuna? As in swimming-in-the-ocean tuna? As in the fish that John West built its reputation and famous advertising campaign on? Indeed. While Millbrook is one of Western Australia’s most herbivore-friendly dining options (the kitchen can easily cater for vegetarian and vegan diners without prior notice), it, like your correspondent, isn’t quite ready to do away with meat just yet. What it does do is prove that it’s possible to cast vegetables as the stars of the show rather than just an afterthought. It’s telling, I think, that menu descriptors lead with the vegetable component rather than the protein, as is standard restaurant operating procedure.
At a time when so many people like to talk the #seasonal and #localproduce talk, it’s heartening to find a chef that not only walks the walk, but plants the plants that underwrite her or his (actual) seasonal menu.
So, “pumpkin, heritage chicken, grains, chilli sauce” turns out to be a comforting, almost-risotto starring various cooked grains (pearl couscous, freekeh, rye) bound with pureed roast pumpkin and Jeffreys’ approximation of mojo, the piquant chilli sauce of the Canary Islands. The heritage chicken in question is reared by Marc and Leonie Brummelman of Wagin Duck & Game, poultry suppliers to Perth’s better restaurants. In this instance, the bird is presented three ways: its thigh has been confited in fat and roasted, the (skin-on) breast has been simply grilled, and the wing is fried till golden without and juicy within. It’s a win for taste, texture and theatre, not to mention a winning riposte to the argument that chicken on menus is boring.
The Brummelmans also pop up in other opportune places on the menu. Those squishy duck hearts that get served with spicy young mustard greens and a bright citrus sauce in a fun homage to duck l’orange? Raised in Wagin, ditto a brilliant little quail number, the quality of the bird meaning it requires little more than grilling, cleaving into quarters and then being arranged on a plate for guests to greedily devour with their fingers.
Elsewhere: vegetable trim and unphotogenic plant bits (unsprayed leaves riddled with creepy crawly bite marks, say, or radish tops and edible weeds like purslane plucked from around the garden) are upcycled into luxurious creamed greens that accompany roasted Jindong pork leg and a Polonaise (French for “in the manner of Poland”) crumble of old sourdough and hard-boiled duck eggs from Jeffreys’ own flock.
The market fish of the day when Broadsheet visited was a meaty tranche of spangled emperor. Its plate-mates: a lively horseradish cream plus a wedge of well-caramelised tarte Tatin made with sweet young red onion in place of traditional apple. Bold, as was the decision to match the dish with Millbrook’s juicy, bright-fruited nebbiolo, just one instance of winemaker Damian Hutton’s knack for sourcing fruit from around Western Australia and transforming it into delicious, true-to-type expressions of grape and place.
The kitchen shares the winery’s love of fermentation, too. From inoculating local Bannisters Down cream with kefir grains to produce Millbrook’s vivid yellow house butter, to preserving surplus produce, Jeffreys and his team are well-practised in using this centuries-old technique to capture the tastes of the season and suspend them in time to be revisited in future.
Vegetables and vegetarianism, of course, aren’t new, but I suspect few predicted their current standing in food circles. Gone are the days where restaurants could get away with serving “vegie stacks”, iterations on goat’s cheese and tomato, or simply subtract animal parts from a dish till it fit a diner’s dietary requirements. For those who remember the kitchen world’s infatuation with El Bulli-ish technology (think: chemicals designed to transform ingredients into otherworldly textures, sous-vide waterbath cooking, high-speed Pacojet blenders that could seemingly turn anything into ice-cream) this newfound interest in earthier delights could be seen as the pendulum swinging back in the opposite direction. But invariably, restaurants around the world with their own kitchen gardens often tend to be elite, big-night-out affairs with price tags to match (exhibit A: Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Dan Barber’s destination diner in upstate New York).
Millbrook is a throwback to something a little more wholesome and familiar. I’m loathe to reach for the well-trodden country hospitality cliché but the combination of big portions and sensible pricing – and not to mention the value-packed $75 meal deal with a choice of entrees, mains, desserts plus gratis bread and salad – certainly has an air of the farmhouse about it. If you really wanted to, you’d be welcome to drop in (during the week, at least: Saturday and Sunday lunch require a minimum spend) to taste some wine at the cellar door and take in the property’s million-dollar views. But for mine, the full Millbrook experience is about setting aside a day to make the drive out to the Perth Hills, enjoy a wholesome lunch cooked used ingredients grown onsite sans chemicals and additives, and revel in a chef and restaurant doing local and seasonal the right way.
“When you’re in France or Italy, local is the town that you’re in, your region,” Jeffreys says. “That’s what made me change the way I did things and decide that local, to me, would be Jarrahdale and from the property. It might be an extreme local and seasonal, but it is what it is.”
Thu to Mon 12pm–3pm