Douglas has been a professional food writer since 1986. He is also an award-winning actor and director in Community Theatre and has been for many years. His blog may be found at: www.urbaneguerilla.wordpress.com
Published July 19th 2011
Finding a good eatery as a family is not always easy. If your children are teenagers, it's not quite so bad - if you can overlook the occasional sullen 'What's that?' as they push disdainfully at something on their plate with a fork. ('I don't care if you call it broccoli, I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it') Smaller children can be a trial too, but for reasons of boredom rather than a desire to wind up.
The Laughin' Barrel in Upper Swan is, however, a perfect family restaurant. Firstly, it has a beautiful, treed al fresco area overlooking the fenced playground for smalls - colourful, safe, equipment on beach sand. Secondly, if your little ones fancy themselves as cooks, they can make their own pizzas. The sight of three or four youngsters in tall white hats and voluminous aprons, solemnly topping and watching as their creations are slid into the wood-fired pizza oven is utterly charming. I have to say also that the children were remarkably well-behaved, too. Thirdly, the food is excellent and, fourthly and most importantly, very reasonably priced.
Angela and I took a leisurely Saturday luncheon there recently, and it was quite lovely. The day was warm, but not hot, a slight breeze was blowing over the ranked rows of vines into the, largely glass, dining hall. The furniture and fittings are rough-hewed Jarrah and handsome in a rustic sort of way.
The food is not rustic - it is good, wholesome and supremely well cooked by Chef Angela, who is not classically trained but has that rare quality of sympathy for food and an outstanding palate. I was fortunate enough to meet her and congratulate her on her cooking. (She's in her twenties, looks about twelve from my age perspective, and cooks like a dream.)
We began, after the usual agony of choice, with a joint starter of 'Trio of Bruschetta' ($12). This was more than enough for both of us, consisting as it did of three large toasted slices with three different toppings - traditional (which was very good); a Sautéed mushroom and roast capsicum (which was excellent) and a grilled pumpkin, Feta cheese and Pesto one - which was amazing.
By now our eyebrows were well and truly raised and we looked forward to mains with a certain greedy gusto which was unbecoming but understandable.
Angela's 'special of the day' was the unimaginatively named 'Pie' ($19.50) (That's its photo, below). This was absolutely amazing - beef and vegetable in a red wine sauce under a topping pastry lid with chips (excellent) and a fresh salad, with a delightful light, slightly sweet, dressing.
The pie was superb, rich, flavoursome, tender meat roiled with potato, swede and peas - just phenomenally good. When talking to Chef Angela afterwards I asked - 'Your recipe? Your granny's? Gordon Ramsey's?'
Her reply? 'I just put some stuff together and it turned out OK.' Brilliant and modest - now that's a rare combination. Incidentally that's ingenuous - food just doesn't get that good by accident.
My main course was a dish I haven't had in a while - Filet Mignon ($29.50). Hugely popular in the 1970s and 80s, it appears to have declined in popularity, but it is an excellent dish when prepared well, as it certainly was here. Perfectly, and I mean absolutely perfectly cooked to 'medium to rare on the rare side, please' the meat was tender and delicious. Locally sourced as most of the ingredients are, the meal was as good as I've enjoyed anywhere.
As the Laughin' Barrel is also a winery, naturally there was a range of their wines available - we had an excellent bottle of crisp white, slightly fruity and rich with the aromas of summer.
If you would like to try a range of their wines they do serve a 'tasting plate' of the wines - both a red and white tasting plate, complete with cheese, biscuits and olives (also local).
We had a apple and rhubarb crumble for sweets ($8.50) – 'two spoons, please' and very nostalgic it was, too. Excellent coffee (ground from their own beans) and we were done for the day, pretty much literally. A short power-nap seemed like an attractive prospect after our meal.
The range and variety of dishes available makes it difficult to categorise The Laughin' Barrel - they serve Italian Parmigana, French Fillet, Thai Fish Cakes; British roast beef, Turkish Hummus, and so on and so forth.
I think probably the best way to describe it would be to call it an outstanding family restaurant offering a range of fine, hearty and elegant meals at reasonable price.
The service is obviously not silver, which would be hideously out of place, but it is friendly, polite and swift - more than that you couldn't hope for from anyone.
Personally I would choose swift and efficient over flashy any day of the week and twice on hungry days. Although I have been talking exclusively about lunch, The Laughin' Barrel is open for dinners on Fridays from 6 til late. Perhaps I should call back in and check my findings? There are a lot of dishes I haven't yet tried.