Exploring Newcastle and the Hunter

By Franz Scheurer


Longbench on Darby

Almost in the heart of Newcastle Longbench on Darby is packed, breakfast, lunch and dinner with hungry locals. The food is plentiful, well crafted and attractively presented in a 80s sort of way. Service is friendly but one can’t help noticing that the customers are taken for granted. This is about making money, not about hospitality. There’s a surcharge for this and an extra charge for that and don’t expect to change a menu item during peak-service hours, as we won’t comply. Although they advertise top quality lines like Toby’s Coffee and Nudie juices, the real issue is cost cutting on ingredients that can’t be as easily identified and don’t hold a ‘prestige value’, like the greens, the tea, the eggs, the ice cream, etc. Everything is a bit tired and cheap. When we asked to have the rather unusual, tofu-tasting, ricotta-textured ‘fetta’ identified the waitress came back to tell us that the chef was either unwilling to tell her what this was or unable to. Not acceptable! When we asked for a menu to take away (always easier to write a review that is factually correct) they refused (even when we told them that this was for a review). They simply don’t care. They are secure in the knowledge that the punters keep on coming and to sum up: Eat, drink, pay, get out, we don’t give a toss, and NO, we don’t take bookings! Newcastle, wake up! There are other places serving enormous amounts of cheap food!


Score: 5/10

For more information

Longbench on Darby

161 Darby Street

Cooks Hill

Tel.: 02 4927 8888



Situated in the small but vibrant business sector of Nelson Bay, a resort/retirement township north of Newcastle, Zest is a culinary oasis in a quality-food starved area.


You are immediately at ease when you walk into the restaurant. Although the look is modern the feel is cosy. A dark green wall on the right meets a mid-green carpet, with the theme continued on the other side of the room with a light green wall. Dark wooden tables, comfortable chairs, clever lighting, perfect music and superb local artwork on the wall complete the main room with a funky lounge area and semi private dining room at the other end, near the open kitchen. This restaurant would not look out of place in Paris, New York or Sydney.


The menu sounds promising and the food is excellent. The ‘Twice baked Goats Cheese Soufflé with a Walnut Sauce’ is light, full of cheesy flavour without being too strong and the taste and texture of the walnut sauce a stroke of genius. A dish of ‘Pan seared Sea Scallops with Ravioli of Slow Cooked Pork Belly, Ginger & Soy Beurre Blanc’ is beautifully presented with a plump, sweet scallop sitting on top of the ravioli surrounded by the sauce. Flavours are earthy and the slightly ‘resistant to bite’ pasta contrasts well with the softness of the scallop. The ‘Farmed Rabbit wrapped in Prosciutto with Globe Artichokes, Fennel, Tomato, Feves with a Warm Italian Dressing’, is Italian poetry on a plate. The meat is stuffed with Ligurian olives and parsley then tightly wrapped in prosciutto. Crisp on the outside, juicy, meaty on the inside, this is rabbit cooked to perfection. The artichoke and a piece of braised fennel ground the dish with their earthy flavours and the tiny broad beans brighten it up.


The clientele is ‘mature’ and would probably remember the days of Gueridon cooking. We can’t resist the call of the past and order the ‘Crepes Suzette, thin pancakes warmed in an Orange & Grand Marnier Sauce with an Orange Blossom Cream’ and they’re fabulous. Sadly, they aren’t prepared table-side, but this modern take on a classic dish, served topped with Iranian fairy floss, works a treat.


Chef Glenn Thompson trained under Serge Dansereau at the Regent and he’s obviously learnt a thing or two!


Service is friendly, attentive and professional. Nothing is too much trouble. Value for money is good and the wine list is much better than expected, with a reasonable selection by the glass. This is a seriously good eatery that would easily be competitive in the ‘big smoke’ and is a real find in the country.


Keep up the good work!


Score: 7.5/10


For more information or bookings:

Zest Restaurant

16 Stockton Street

Nelson Bay

Tel.: 02 4984 2211


The Old George & Dragon

Off the beaten track, hidden in a small side street in East Maitland, the Old George & Dragon has a long history of good food and a reputation for a fabulous cellar. Inside an 1837 coach-house, renovated in a style that would be at ease in Europe with heavy brocade curtains, dark green walls with wooden trim, high ceilings, old-worldly artefacts, pictures of hunting scenes, this is a step back to a more voluptuous, gentler time. Sitting down you sink into chairs that are a little too low and a bit too soft to be comfortable and the air is hot and quite stuffy adding to that old-world feel. Table-, and glass-, ware are excellent, however the stainless steel Japanese cutlery isn’t in keeping with the rest of the décor. The menu is classic a mix of traditional fare, embracing French and English favourites with the odd Kangaroo thrown in for local colour.


The food is just as old-worldly, overworked and stuffy. The ‘Quail and chanterelles mushroom pie’ is rich and exceptionally gamey and the best savoury dish on the night. A main course of ‘Roast lamb loin with a white bean casserole’ looked huge with the loin finely cut and fanned out. The meat, of questionable quality, was perfectly seared but obviously not rested, making it tough and chewy with the juices leaking out into the flood of over-reduced, slightly bitter jus that covered the plate. The beans were undercooked and chalky. A main of ‘Pan fried ocean trout fillet with leek confit, baby spinach and cider butter sauce’ was better, with a good-sized piece of fish, still moist inside, sitting on top of excellent English spinach and fondue of leeks, however the sauce let it down. A butter emulsion does not need starch to keep it, it will invariable ‘set’ on the plate.


Our dessert, a ‘Rhubarb and apple crumble and vanilla bean ice cream’ the star of the night, showing off a crisp, crunchy crust, soft but well-textured fruit and a superb ice cream to go with it. Excellent indeed.


Service is very friendly and the least stuffy thing about this place. It is positively cheerful! The wine list is indeed lengthy and worthy of a couple of ‘oohs and aahs’, however, I can’t help feeling that although this would have been a definitive wine list 20 years ago, it is not today. The city guys have caught up and gone way beyond, using purchasing power to stock their cellars with wine that simply time and passion can’t rival any more.


All in all the Old George & Dragon is still a very good restaurant and worthy of your patronage, but I do feel they need to look at their food and make some changes. Today’s patrons are a far more knowledgeable lot than the patrons of twenty years ago and with knowledge comes demand for better technique and fewer shortcuts.


Score: 6/10


For more information or bookings:

The Old George & Dragon

48 Melbourne Street

East Maitland NSW 2323

Tel.: 02 4933 7272



Mojo’s on Wilderness

Cool greens and plum-reds lift the interior of this restaurant, a little oasis of peace and quiet, tucked away from the main hustle and bustle of the Hunter’s main thoroughfares. You will need to know it exists to find it, as it is badly signposted, but that just adds to the ‘feel-good’ component once you join the mainly young clientele at one of the inside or outside tables with limited bush views. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and cook hearty, honest food that is above average, and present it with a smile. We love to go there for a Sunday breakfast. Try ‘Adam’s Eggs Benedict’, perfectly poached eggs with oozy yolks covered with a fresh lemony hollandaise sauce on good quality bread, or the ‘Braised field mushrooms with brie served on toast’, another crowd pleaser with good texture and gentle but convincing flavours. If you feel indulgent, the ‘Belgian Liquid Centre Chocolate Pudding’ not only looks good, it is, surrounded by a tart, bright red raspberry coulis. Coffee and tea is big city quality and value for money is excellent.


We also ate lunch there on a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon, soaking up the early spring sun in the flower-perfumed, paved outdoors area.


All the dishes I saw served were very well presented, looking appetising and of generous portions. The ‘Spinach & ricotta gnocchi with herbed goat’s cheese sauce & crisp pancetta’ tasted every bit as good as it looked. The gnocchi were just the right consistency, lifted by the fragrance of the sauce. This really is a very good dish. The ‘Grainfed fillet of beef wrapped in prosciutto with pepperonata, grilled sage and Parmesan polenta and thyme scented jus’ was perfectly cooked to my specification (blue), marvellously marbled meat, hot throughout with an excellent pepperonata and a terrific jus. The polenta, as in 99% of all Australian restaurants, was a disgrace. When will chefs learn to cook out polenta? It’s not meant to remind us of sand and taste like cardboard. It was also ‘over caramelised’ (spell that “burnt”) on the bottom.


A small, Hunter-heavy wine list made it easy to chose a young Hunter Semillon and we opted for a Tasmanian Pinot to go with the cheese platter, which needs work. There are good artisan cheeses made in the Hunter, which would be preferable over the ‘safe’ big brand commodities. However, a ‘Liquid centred Belgian chocolate pudding’ more than made up for this, presenting an oozing, sumptuous and glorious finish to a very enjoyable meal.


Keep it just as it is: fabulous value for money, small, unpretentious, friendly and a jewel well worth finding in the Hunter Valley wilderness. I’ll be back!


Score: 6/10


For more information or bookings:

Mojo’s on Wilderness

Lot 82

Wilderness Road


Tel.: 02 4930 7244


Roberts at Peppertree

Probably the most stunning structure in the Hunter, Robert's restaurant, part of the Tower Estate, is just beautiful. This building could be in Alsace or Switzerland and might have been built a few hundred years ago; lived in, seasoned and utterly delightful. Serious wooden beams are everywhere. They hold up the roof, surround the windows and, combined with the glorious wooden floors and solid wooden furniture, give the place a feeling of timelessness. Wonderfully white, heavily starched table linen lift your dining space out from the dark room, creating a food and wine island that is truly your own culinary space.


The menu is a bit of a worry, though. Not what’s on it, but how it is written. A curious mix of French and English (perfect Franglais, no doubt), without rhyme or reason and with total disregard for both French and English spelling and grammar, it succeeds to confuse the customer as to what the dishes really are.


However let the food speak for itself. The ‘House Charcuterie’ is a generous plate full of house cured olives, home made pickled vegetables, a superb chicken mousse, a country style brawn, a lovely pork terrine and a succulent, slightly spicy salami, all made and smoked in-house and served with crisp rusks of sourdough bread. An entrée of ‘Gnocchi’ turns out to be light but maybe a touch too sweet and a main course of ‘Veal with sweetbread ragout and Swiss brown mushrooms’ looks rather drab and smells acrid due to the fact that they burnt the bone when they grilled the veal chop. The meat is tough and devoid of good flavours but the ragout is excellent and saves the dish from being a total disaster. A dessert of ‘Mandarin slice served with mint sorbet’ was texturally superb and I loved the mandarin slice. The sorbet was too sweet and provided no contrast.


Service is enthusiastic and friendly, the setting superb, the wine list appropriate and well priced and the whole experience enjoyable. Unfortunately the food does let it down a bit and that’s a real shame. Some highlights, like the charcuterie, show that seriously good food is within the capability of the kitchen, but it is just not consistent enough.


Score; 6/10


For more information or bookings;

Robert’s at Peppertree

Halls Road


Tel.: 4998 7330

Shakey Tables Restaurant

By Franz Scheurer


The Hunter Country Lodge offers accommodation with bush and vine views in peaceful surrounds and this is where you find the Shakey Tables Restaurant. Run by Simon and Paula Rengger this is indeed a gastronomic find.


The Hunter has long been promoting itself as a Wine and Food region but the food component has definitely been lacking. Shakey Tables is certainly putting the Hunter on the culinary map.


A wooden structure houses the restaurant and the ‘wood’ theme is mirrored inside. Polished floors, wooden wine racks, fantastic wooden tables and chairs, upholstered in no less than 11 different colours, immediately make you feel at home. The idea of many colours is repeated in everything from the lamps on the tables and the lights on the ceilings, from the paint scheme to the outstanding modern art displayed all over the restaurant walls. Paula Rengger, it seems, is not only an artist in the kitchen, but a considerable force with a paintbrush too.


Everything is solid and glass and tableware are excellent. The flair for visual stimulation is obvious in the brochure, the menus and the wine list. In fact, everything works seamlessly together.


You are greeted with a superb amuse gueule of ‘Salmon Mousse with Pickled Ginger Sorbet, Salmon roe and deep-fried Nori’ served in a shot glass and accompanied by a fresh, warm bread roll and a small dish of olive oil with a dash of Balsamic vinegar. The olive oil, grassy and fragrant, is called ‘Lucy’s Run’ and is produced next door, and sold in a rather striking bottle with a label designed by Paula.


The menu is a good read and a mixture of Mod Oz and Modern European. Paula hails from Scotland, Simon is Swiss, and together they ran a restaurant on the Isle of Skye before opening here. This explains some of the dishes on the menu, like the ‘Herb crusted Beef Fillet with a medley of baby root vegetables, Yorkshire pudding and a Shrewsbury Sauce’ or the ‘De-boned roast pigeon, stuffed with Black Pudding and Prunes, wrapped in Bacon, Cabbage parcels and a red wine jus’, which is a fabulous dish. Perfectly rare pigeon, crisp bacon, succulent black pudding, a sauce worth killing for and excellent presentation really make this one a standout. Presentation is individual, in your face and I like it, although some might think it a little fussy. An entrée of ‘Sticky Hoi Sin Pork belly, spinach, pineapple, chilli and coriander salad with seasoned crackling’ is another winner and vegetarians are catered for with a ‘Layered Char grilled vegetable stack with gourmet Fetta, chilli jam and Petite Salad’ or ‘Peperonata tart with herb coated goats cheese & parmesan crisp’.


Desserts too are excellent. I loved the ‘Blood plum & White Chocolate parfait with coconut crusted ice cream in baked plums’ and watching the rapt expression on the face of a diner at the next table demolishing his ‘Apple charlotte, custard pot with apple crumble and vanilla ice cream’ it must have been as good as it looked.


Whilst Paula looks after the magic in the kitchen, Simon is the sommelier and the face in the dining room. His wine list is one of the better ones I have seen and focuses, rightly so, on Hunter wines. Wines by the glass are brought to the table, offered to taste, and then poured. I wish every restaurant would do that! Although the food is not cheap, value for money is excellent and the mark-up on the wines is very reasonable. Service is attentive, friendly and professional, something rarely seen outside the city.


Score: 7.5 / 10


For more information and bookings:

Shakey Tables

Cessnock-Branxton Road

North Rothbury NSW 2335

Tel.: 02 4938 1744






The Table Guesthouse

The first thing that greets you when you get to The Table Guesthouse is a lovely garden surrounding a Tuscan-style two-storey house. Olive trees create a natural barrier towards the road and create a wonderful little oasis of Mediterranean Europe within.


Malcolm Martin went to extraordinary lengths to get the details right. The theme is ‘Tuscan / Provencale’. Wonderful wrought-iron, bakelite power fittings on old-fashioned dark wooden boards, little alcoves with statues, books and magazines carefully scattered about, wonderful, solid, antique or custom-made furniture throughout the building and a superb collection of paintings. The breakfast room is full of small prints by an English impressionist called Bernard Dunstan. Everything just fits perfectly and creates harmony rarely found.


The few guest rooms (3 in the main house and another 2 in the adjoining building) are just as harmoniously furnished and have easily the most comfortable beds I have had the pleasure of sleeping in outside my own home.


Not only has Malcolm managed to realise his Tuscan vision, he’s also a terrific cook and a great host. His motto (from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin): ‘To invite someone to be our guest is to undertake responsibility for their happiness all the time that they are under our roof’. He succeeds!


It doesn’t matter how late you stay solving the world’s problems around the huge old communal dining table, or how early you wake up in the morning, Malcolm is there. His food is packed full of flavour, rustic and gorgeous. A country-styel duck liver pate served with his own caraway flavoured rye toast is strong, full of dark, gamey flavours and a terrific, gritty texture. You could say that the beetroot soup served with a swirl of crème fraiche is his signature dish and it’s fabulous. Fruit-driven but not too sweet, light but not thin, it is the perfect soup, giving you all the comfort without filling you up. Martin tries to cook with whatever is fresh and seasonal. As a main course you might get a Paella (a bloody beauty!) or a twice-cooked crispy skin duck, the fact that the menu changes keeps the surprise alive. Breakfasts are an indulgence. Make sure you are not in a hurry and take your time to savour everything he dishes up. It is certainly worth it. On a sunny day you might chose to eat it in the garden, adding an extra touch of tranquillity and peace.


It is no accident that travellers from all over the world come here to relax. This is my favourite place to stay in the Hunter Region. It’s almost like a home away from home. Value for money is excellent, too. Next time you deserve a real break, spend a long weekend at The Table Guesthouse, you won’t regret it.


Score: 7.5/10


For more information or bookings:

The Table Guesthouse

3 Walter Street

Greta (via Pokolbin)

Tel.: 02 4938 7799