Sandalford in the Swan Valley boasts an impressive pedigree. Founded in 1840, one of the oldest family owned wineries in the country, and with a swag of awards it's a bit of a grand dame in what is already a pretty bejewelled part of the state. You might also know it as host to some of the more opulent summer concerts.
It also has a pretty swanky restaurant, dripping in Gold Plates and other awards of excellence.
As a rather belated birthday present I was taking my sister out for lunch after a morning chocolate and wine tasting in the Valley.
We had resisted the urge to spend too much time online looking at the menu, because everyone knows how annoying it is when you set your heart on something, and when you arrive the menu is completely different. We needn't have worried, as the menu was exactly as promised, which then created a new problem. What to choose?
The menu is divided into four sections: to start, to follow, on the side and to finish. Each has between five and seven substantial offerings, although vegetarians – unless they want to create a meal using side dishes – are limited to the (very nice sounding) roast tomato and Persian feta tart with green beans, potatoes and balsamic ($36).
We decided to share two starters since neither of us could limit ourselves to a single dish.
The pork cheek, endive kimchi, seared scallop and pineapple nam jim ($22) was such a guilty pleasure. Soft chunks of tender pork had been battered and deep fried. Three perfectly cooked scallops were left alone to just be happy. Crunchy disks of radish complemented the batter, while sticky nam jim pineapple morsels added sweetness to the dish. I can't recall noticing any of the endive kimchi, but the rest of the dish was so delicious I felt sorry for anything that had to follow it.
Our next starter was a salad of char grilled octopus, on a bed of smoked paprika hommus, served with olive, red pepper and caperberries ($22). Although still delicious, this was a very different dish to the pork cheek. Whereas the pork had been all softness and sweetness, this dish was crisp and crunchy with sharp and savoury flavours.
As responsible drivers, we were limiting ourselves to a single glass of something special to accompany our lunch, but weren't sure what to order. Luckily, the cellar door with wine tastings of the Sandalford range was merely a couple of steps away. Unlike the relative calm of the dining room, the tasting room was abuzz with people, two deep at the bar. No one seemed particularly perturbed at the hefty tasting fee (starting at $2.50 per person up to $5 pp depending on which range you want to try).
Having decided on the sparkling wine, we returned to the table for a bit of a wait for our mains. It gave us a chance to look around.
The main dining room is elegant and bright, with a large open double fireplace and comfy couch. The walls have some attractive wrought iron pieces, but really the main decoration (apart from the food) is the view outside to the vine covered outdoor dining area.
Unlike the stiff white linen atmosphere of the inside room, the al fresco area is much more casual, and you sit on long wooden benches, under (what else?) 125 year old grape wines, that twist their way above your head, providing dappled shade.
On offer for mains are seven options ranging from $36 to $45. Carnivores are taken care of with a Margaret River venison loin with roasted vegetables ($45) or a black angus beef fillet ($45). Bird lovers can try the confit duck leg ($42) or the spiced baby chicken ($38). For fish lovers there is the grilled Darwin barramundi ($44) and for carb fiends, the saffron gnocchi with kale pesto cream ($38).
I chose the spiced baby chicken on wild rice, with watermelon and red curry sauce ($38). Looking at the elements, this really seems to be a dish that shouldn't exist. It wasn't a chicken curry, but the curry sauce (which was very mild, and almost satay-like) was dolloped onto a generous pile of black rice. The tiny little chicken was then butterflied on top, and decorated with cubes of fresh plain watermelon. It was unusual, but it worked. It was well cooked and filling and reminded me of another baby chicken I had recently eaten at The Subi. I wonder if this is becoming a trend for me?
My sister chose the very beefy black Angus dish, which included a beef fillet as well as a beef cheek galette (similar to our pork starter, but beefier) and a zucchini and feta roulade. It was a very substantial dish, although the roulade was cold from the fridge and jarred a bit against the warmth of the meat. Although there are a number of tempting sides including both salads and vegetables, when we questioned our waitress, she said it was probably unnecessary since we had already had starters. If you were skipping starters and going straight to mains, I would probably order a side or two ($9.50-$12).
Despite being quite full, we felt obliged to try one of the desserts on offer. It was a birthday celebration after all. They include some old favourites such as the chocolate crème brulee, the summery coconut panna cotta, and the unusual sounding avocado cheese cake. All desserts are $16.
We chose the sticky date butterscotch icecream sandwich with raspberry and pistachio praline. Apparently it is new on the menu and while it sounded fantastic, for me, it was a disappointment. The cake 'sandwich' which obviously had been frozen, was a tad dry and had an unusual flavour. There raspberry sauce, which could have added tartness and moisture to the dish was almost non-existent, and limited to four tiny spots. I also found the pistachio praline much too big to comfortably eat, and would have preferred it to be finely ground to add a more manageable texture, rather than the tooth shattering chunks it arrived in.
Dessert aside, it was a very enjoyable lunch, not least for the fact it was a Monday and I was hanging out with my sister in the Valley. While the restaurant was very quiet when we arrived at noon, by 2pm there were a number of happy diners, including a tour group who each had at least a dozen glasses lined up in front of them, and were obviously going to have a great afternoon.
The prices and distance dictate that Sandalford is probably special occasion territory, but combined with a morning or afternoon enjoying the rest of what the Swan Valley has to offer, it is a lovely place to have an elegant lunch.