Country pubs and state hotels are updated, modernized and refurbished at a rapid pace. Some are modernized in a homogenized way, but others are redesigned and renovated in a more thoughtful way to preserve the heritage elements, the character and, above all, the soul.
Up the rickety side staircase and through the temporary entrance to the top floor and into Norton Summit’s Scenic Hotel, it’s immediately evident that the relatively new owners have taken the latter approach. The soul of the Scenic is evident, and its personality is already revealed through recent and subtle renovations.
An outdoor seating and dining area has been carved into the hillside and preserved in old stone, with a gravel path winding between picnic tables that stand under the party lights. A fabulous space that goes against another trend of a traditional courtyard or beer garden; it has a more open, almost whimsical feel about it.
As we open the doors, Johnny Cash plays on the stereo. To our right is an empty lounge bar with a sturdy pool table and bar, low ceilings and waxed floors. Looks like it has been given a lick of paint with warm tones of a green scheme that lights up as it passes through the adjoining dining room to our left. This section is far from empty, despite a cold midweek night.
The guys from the hills who stop for a bite mingle and mingle at tables filled with enthusiastic subway diners who have already heard the rumors about this silent new director. They’ve been working on something special here. In fact, they still work – with closed downstairs for some quick renovations. I am told they will be finished soon.
But now we make our way to a table by the crackling fireplace tucked away to the side where we realize this place’s name says it all, with a remarkable view of the twinkling city lights below. Not too far below: While we are nestled in the hollow of the hills in the heart of Norton Summit, we are only fifteen minutes from the eastern suburbs. It’s a hike we can all do easily.
We are encouraged to order the cheddar croquettes with piccalilli. I find out that piccalilli is the other name given to the old and faithful mustard pickle, and I learn that the British stole this style from a traditional South Asian pickle several moons ago. This one reminds me of the better, much better version of Spring Gully. It’s fresh and it’s very slightly crunchy and tangy and even a little sour. This is delicious. I use a slice of the nearby Lost Loaf sourdough to eagerly mop up any leftovers when the crunchy and cheesy croquettes are done.
And then the soldiers arrive, garnished with Ortiz anchovies and a homemade secret green sauce (ingredients unknown, but it certainly tastes like the best combination of greens, emulsified into a smooth paste) with a slice of lemon on it. each soldier to add a little bite. And we bite. Again and again, only our lost senses remain.
The southern fried chicken is next and boy does that look good. Good taste too. Bound by a savage desire, we demolish this succulent fried dish, thighs, wings and all, dipped in the Mississippi homecoming sauce and swapped with chunky slices of pickle.
In another display of confidence, the scenic gives a familiar twist to a French classic that could be seen as culinary appropriation if it weren’t so enjoyable. This is a flank steak tartare made from the freshest blend of meat and herbs, hollowed out in an open sliced packet of Smith’s Crisps. Salt is used sparingly in the center of the chopped star, allowing additional salt shavings to do the work in this area. It is certainly a question of balance, but it is above all a question of pleasure.
Between nostalgia and cheese, the cuisine is playing its next retro movement: taramasalata dip served with Jatz crackers. You heard it, Jatz. As someone whose only artistic skill is to arrange dishes on decadent platters, I feel a bit conflicted at this point. How about some crusty bread? or Lavosh? Or more of that French toast? Can they really go that far?
They do. And still it works. This is another complementary discussion of flavor versus salt and it’s at the end of these nibbles that I learn to ignore my preconceptions and run with them. Jatz, good. Smith’s Chips is better.
Today’s gnocchi are made from a fresh harvest of wild (fancy) mushrooms. Picked from the surrounding hills, they are bursting with a woody flavor that stands out from the blue cheese sauce. Raddichio completes the dish and adds crunch, freshness and a nice touch of bitterness. It’s hearty but very well balanced and avoids this typical heaviness despite the combination of ingredients.
Then it’s country-made steak, eggs and fries: 300 grams of grass-fed sirloin are cooked to perfection, sliced in the center, and presented with the inside facing up – a chef’s trick that I have already used to ensure proper cooking. A fried egg with crispy edges and fatter fries sit alongside dumplings of condiments – one akin to a pure sauce and the other creamier and spicier thanks to the added horseradish.
There is an air of sustainability to this menu – the cuisine clearly goes off the beaten track and aims to minimize waste, evident through the sauces and condiments used in various dishes like the ones above, but also through star ingredients. . Take the Roo schnitzel, for example. We’re seeing them on more and more menus, and I think it’s time we thought about alternatives to over-exploitation and over-production. Yesterday’s bread is blitzed and used in a (delicious) bread sauce and they even have a dressing from the neighboring Jauma winery to splash their salad on. I said it once and now I say it again: leftover wine does not exist.
Someone’s grandmother taught anyone who baked dessert very well, and the taste of love is sweet. This is the stickiest caramel pudding – the kind that sticks your teeth together but in the best way, slightly spiced up with added crème fraîche. Another nostalgic delight, it’s even served in Nanna’s finest vintage bowls, matching most of tonight’s cutlery.
As far as country ads go, I’ve been almost everywhere (male) and it’s clear from this visit to The Scenic that a true classic never goes out of style.
The picturesque hotel
Old Norton Summit Rd, Norton Summit
(08) 7320 1610
Lunch: Thursday to Saturday, 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday “long lazy lunch”, 12 pm-7:30pm
Dinner: Wednesday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
To read more about Paul Wood’s restaurant reviews, click here.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.