Everything we thought lacking in technique and invention at Stefano’s was more than made up for by the meal enjoyed at The Grange restaurant in the Adelaide Hilton the following night. Head chef Cheong Liew has been a legend in Australian food for decades, and his highly worked and stylised food stuns you with complexity and intrigue. For most of the dishes, I think that even if I had a demonstration DVD and a year to practice I would still struggle to deliver a single morsel anywhere near as good as what Liew and his chefs produce every day.
The dining environment is luxurious and relaxed. Though not entirely closed off from the hotel lobby, the buzz of action from the foyer is masked by a loud trickle from the central water feature and conversation was never difficult. We were led to our enormous table and seated in voluptuous armchairs for the whole experience – it’s amazing how useful arms on chairs can be when you’re dining for nearly four hours! Service from our principal waiter was exemplary, the others were always good but sometimes a little hard to understand when they were explaining a dish. However questions were answered clearly and succinctly.
Entitled “A Migration of Ideas”, the 8-course degustation led us through a progression of flavours and textures with a sometimes dizzying number of ingredients in each mouthful. To be honest some dishes weren’t to my liking, but taken as a whole the meal was astounding and always interesting. The menu descriptions detailed below offer only the general theme of each dish and the principal components, and in fact there were lots of other unmentioned elements throughout. It is impossible to state them all, so I’ll comment only on the general impact of each plate. Naturally we also chose the matched wine option, and the selections included several well-regarded wines:
Boned chicken wing filled with scallop, Iberico ham, in game consomme – intentionally somewhat bland, this soft starter sharpened our palates for the dishes to come well. Also featuring fennel and fined shredded strands of egg, it was gently savoury and salt-free. Served with 2008 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling.
Drunken prawns, marinated Kingfish, mussel jelly, potato salmon roe salad – also known as “The Four Dances of the Sea”, Liew’s signature dish. Each of the four sections above is presented in it’s own pile and we are instructed to begin at 6 o’clock and work clockwise around the dish to properly appreciate the progression. Some dishes were a challenge to me (the drunken prawns also included a drunken oyster, and the mussels were also hard for me swallow), but there was so much happening in each mouthful my tongue was literally dancing with flavours. Served with 2008 Redbank ‘Sunday Morning’ pinot gris.
Kangaroo Island marron with duck neck sausage, fisherman’s rice – The Fisherman’s rice dish could stand alone, and as our waiter explained it contained miniscule portions of numerous different seafoods cooked with the rich but not leaden rice. But next to the marron and duck neck sausage it was a poor cousin: we both thought the richness and intensity of flavour in this combination almost orgasmic. It was the highlight dish of the night for me (and Kristen), without doubt, though the beef dish to follow was a good second. Served with 2007 Yalumba FDW7c chardonnay.
Cedar smoked magret duck breast on caramelised turnip and truffled sauce – the waiter explained this dish’s unusual texture is due to the duck meat being cured then poached, the result chewy without being tough. Overall a rich and sweet dish, the matching wine (2005 Robert Johnson merlot) a slightly heavy mis-match though it is a good wine.
Grilled wagyu beef with braised beef cheek, tomato, green olives, orange zest – neither of us are huge beef eaters, so the relatively small portions of this dish were perfectly sized. And oh-so-perfect in taste: a rectangle of pepper-seared Wagyu fillet was divine, and the small mound of braised beef cheek also suitably rich. An unmentioned but valuable element on the plate was eggplant, its sweetness offsetting the peppery spice. By the end of this fifth course Kristen was getting rather full, but I gamely soldiered on. Served with a superb 2005 Greenock Creek ’Alices’ shiraz.
Braised shark lip, sea cucumber in carrot oil, aromatic broth – so you want to know what braised shark lip is like? Done this way it is a milky-translucent flat rectangle of gelatinous gooey softness, very rich and quite spicy. I was a fan. The sea cucumber? Like chewing a hockey puck. Hard and dense, this resisted the teeth strongly and had a tangy edge from its seasonings but no discernible taste of itself. I had to put this aside, but the rest was fine. A very interesting dish in the context of the entire meal, its spicyness and focus on texture well-placed just before the sweeter final two courses. Served with Lustau ‘rare amontillado’ sherry, a good match.
Delice de Cremier, Tomme de Chevre, Beaufort D’Alpage, Gres de Vosges – four different French cheeses, three of sheep’s milk and one of goat. During the break before this course we’d resolved to skip the cheeses entirely but on arrival they were too tempting to dismiss, so we nibbled at them while quaffing 2008 Stefano Lubiana ‘Primavera’ pinot noir.
The final plate is your choice of two, depending on the degree of “stuffed” you think you are after the sixth course. Either “Imperial Rice and sago square, anglaise sauce with cinnamon ice cream and fruit compote” or “chocolate bonnet, prune Armagnac ice cream, and almond brittle”. We had one of each and both were brilliant, neither surviving intact for long. The wines were either 2006 Tilbrook Estate botrytis pinot gris or Campbell’s ‘Classic’ Rutherglen tokay (superb).
The only real negative about this meal is that there was more food in it than your average person could comfortably eat. We intended to walk through the city for a while afterwards to aid digestion, but somehow all we could manage was a short stagger back to our hotel and a long rest. Eating here was not on the original plan, but I’m very happy we had the chance to do so while Cheong Liew is still directly involved in the kitchen. A recent review panned The Grange for, amongst other things, its poor location in the foyer and Cheong Liew’s frequent absences from the kitchen. I found the setting rather special, and I specifically asked our waiter as we were leaving whether Liew was in the kitchen that day. I was told he had left at 7.30pm, after overseeing prep all afternoon. His under-chefs are well-schooled in the food and clearly didn’t need direct oversight in my opinion. A memorable, masterful meal.