Eating out is a highlight of any visit to the Hunter Valley, so add these restaurants to your must-try list.
By Ute Junker
When you head off to the Hunter Valley, just over two hours north of Sydney, remember to bring your appetite with you. This famous wine region is also known for its superb restaurants, which range from fine dining in heritage buildings to share plates served up in rustic chic surrounds. The region might be known for its laid-back country atmosphere, but there is even a decadent dessert bar for those who like things sophisticated and sweet.
No one has done more to shape the Hunter Valley's dining scene than Robert Molines, who opened his first restaurant here more than four decades ago. At an age when many have retired, Molines is still going strong with his latest venture, Bistro Molines, which showcases his Provencal roots. Savour the area's best views as you tuck into rabbit with mustard and olives or braised beef short ribs in red wine sauce. Save room for the cheese platter, the prettiest one you will ever see.
Led by chef Frank Fawkner, EXP Restaurant offers the Hunter Valley’s most adventurous dining experience. Whether you choose the five or eight-course menu, expect some surprises. You may even be asked to grind herbs to help make the herb butter that goes with your freshly baked bread. Fawkner is known for supercharging his dishes with flavour: try black garlic risotto with cauliflower and Pyengana cheddar, or the extraordinary honey-drenched brioche filled with blue cheese custard.
Hungerford Hill, one of the Hunter Valley's most modern wineries, is an appropriate setting for Troy Rhoades-Brown’s sophisticated plating and globally inspired cuisine at Muse Restaurant. Though Rhoades-Brown is adept at updating rustic favourites such as chicken terrines, he is best known for innovative dishes such as cuttlefish and king brown mushroom noodles with sake, miso and yuzu. The five-course tasting menu is recommended.
For some chefs, running one of the Hunter's best restaurants would be enough of a challenge. Troy Rhoades-Brown, however, likes to stretch himself. His second outlet, Muse Kitchen at Keith Tulloch Wine, offers more casual dishes without skimping on superb ingredients. For those who are feeling hungry, the Wagyu beef pie – designed to be shared by two people – hits the spot. For a light bite, you can't go past the smoked pork hock and gruyere cheese toastie.
Picture your perfect Sunday lunch restaurant and chances are it would look uncannily like Circa 1876. Tucked into a heritage cottage overlooking a thriving kitchen garden, Circa 1876 combines country comfort with sophisticated cuisine, with diners able to choose anything between two and seven courses depending on their hunger levels.
With leather booths and superb cocktails, as well as outdoor seating and craft brews on tap, Goldfish Bar & Kitchen suits whatever mood you are in. It is justly famous for its crispy thin-crust pizzas – try the braised lamb shoulder and potato option – but the menu of share plates has plenty of other treats to choose from, including kangaroo tartare and a delicious whole baby barramundi.
The best way to start a meal at Margan Restaurant is with a walk around the 4,000 square-metre (one-acre) kitchen garden. In addition to growing their own vegetables, Lisa and Andrew Margan, pioneers of paddock to plate dining, also produce their own olives and honey, as well was raising chickens and lambs. Their superb produce is showcased in an ever-changing array of seasonal dishes.
Much-loved dessert bar Sabor in the Hunter is located among picturesque vines at Lambloch Estate. A steady crowd of sweet lovers make their way here each day, drawn by diverse treats ranging from scones and souffles to chocolate and pear tarts. The ultimate indulgence is one of the tasting plates, a decadent array of sweet treats that is not for the faint of heart.