Must Winebar, Highgate
If I had to pick a favourite Western Australian chef, Must Winebar co-owner and chef Russell Blaikie would be on my shortlist. I've eaten his food at this year's Truffle Kerfuffle and Must Margaret River (now reborn as Muster Bar & Grill), and enjoyed his culinary vision at The Beach Club at the Cottesloe Hotel. The food at Must Winebar is seasonally driven and showcases the best of local produce in a French provincial-inspired menu that is simple, yet sophisticated.
I had the perfect excuse to make a booking for lunch recently: to taste the limited-time-only dish Russell cooked on Masterchef Australia that was awarded 10 out of 10 by the judges. Not that Jac needed much convincing.
My favourite Perth patisserie boulangerie Jean Pierre Sancho supplies the bread at Must, and it is far too easy to keep slathering on the butter and chomping through more crusty baguette. I was determined not to tumble face first into this delicious trap but in the end, declared "bugger it!" and ate several slices of bread spread thickly with butter.
For her entree, Jac ordered one of the day's specials: orange cold-smoked ocean trout tartar, radish and lemon oil confit prawn salad, beetroot foam (AU$28). I was surprised by the presentation, the most arty-farty dish I've seen come out of Russell's kitchen. It looked like a dish that aspired to be an abstract painting, served on one of those hateful tiles that are difficult to eat off, and ugh - there was not just foam, but hot pink foam. But Jac shared none of my misgivings and loved the flavours and the delicacy of the trout, quickly wiping that painting right off its canvas.
I chose one of Must's signature dishes, the angel hair pasta tossed with blue manna crab, tomato, chilli, basil, cream and 34 Degrees South organic olive oil (AU$24). The cream makes it deceptively rich, so if you're a small eater, this entree may wipe out your capacity for the second course (maybe skip the entree and just order the main course size, AU$42). It's packed with crab and tomato, with a slow, pleasant burn from the chilli.
For main course, Jac ordered the chargrilled Butterfield sirloin steak (270g, dry aged for 28 days) with bernaise sauce, frites, watercress salad (AU$46). Her inner carnivore was delighted by the tender piece of meat cooked precisely to medium rare, served with buttery sauce, crisp shoestring fries and bitter sprigs of watercress. And thank goodness - the steak placed next to the frites rather than on top of them. Regular readers know how much I detest that popular presentation technique that misguidedly gives height to a dish, creating the unwanted side-effect of prematurely soggy fries, and frankly, robs the diner of one of life's greatest pleasures: the joy of eating crispy fried potatoes.
Russell's Masterchef Australia dish didn't disappoint - seared duck breast, pumpkin purée, fennel crisp, Madeira jus (AU$43). The crunchy crumbed cross-section of baby fennel was fantastic (a bowl of them would make a brilliant bar snack) and I wanted more, but the sweet glossy sauce was the masterpiece on the plate that someone kept dipping her steak into.
For dessert, Jac chose the vanilla panna cotta, quince sorbet, poached quince, pistachio snap (AU$16). She didn't have much to say as she attacked the wobbly panna cotta with her spoon.
"Is it good?" I asked.
"Would you have it again?"
One of the secrets to a happy, long-lasting relationship is knowing when to stop asking questions.
I chose the citrus and vanilla creme brûlée, raspberry sorbet, sesame snap (AU$16). The glassy brûlée top cracked under a gentle tap of my spoon, to reveal the silky, fragrant custard. To be honest, I would've been content with just the creme brûlée - the raspberry and sesame were quite intense flavours which somewhat intruded into my citrus and vanilla dessert daydream.
There's a social side to Must - wine tastings, wine dinners, cooking masterclasses where Russell shares his secrets for cooking French bistro classics, duck, paella and more, and live music Soul Sessions on Sundays from 5pm to 9pm.
Monday nights are currently Must Cooks Mondays, where you'll get the day's special meal of a soup and a braise with a glass of Must imported wine for $42. The Must Cooks Mondays special varies each week - this Monday's was potato and leek soup with truffle oil and brioche croutons followed by braised pork belly with Paris mash, green lentils and jus, with a glass of Viognier or Grenache/Carignan.
For those interested in eating for a cause, there's a benefit dinner on 7 September, hosted at Must in honour of a charity close to Russell's heart - Surfing Chefs for SurfAid. He'll be cooking along with chefs Aaron Carr (Vasse Felix), Dany Angove (Leeuwin Estate) and Herb Faust (Herb Faust Foods).
Dining at Must Winebar is special, yet not swanky; the atmosphere is stylish, yet friendly and laid-back. The food has flair, yet plenty of comfort. We didn't necessarily order the most 'classic' French bistro dishes on Must's menu, but they're there, all right: duck liver parfait with chardonnay jelly served with toasted brioche (another of Russell's signature dishes), escargots baked in their shells, goats cheese soufflé, confit duck leg, Paris mash as a side dish and apple tarte tatin on the dessert menu. And don't forget the often under-appreciated star of French cuisine, the well made sauce. We enjoyed a relaxed dining experience and left full and happy. A wonderful Saturday bistro lunch.
Must Winebar is located at the start of the Beaufort eat street with Highgate legends Jackson's and Elmar's Smallgoods for neighbours, across the road from the Queens Tavern.