EXP, similar to CURE in Singapore, is one of those special, rare restaurants that puts all its efforts into creating an intimate, welcoming space where the chefs are on full show, the ingredients are world-class & you get all the quality of fine-dining but without the fussiness or pomp. Plus, when you eat in the Hunter you work through bottle after bottle of stunning, affordable wine that spent its early years on the vines just metres away.
EXP is tiny. I would guess it does 25 covers & these tables are packed in right alongside the counter top where the small team of chefs work their magic in near silence, but with big grins. The cookery is as close as the other guests, and the impact of this is a friendliness & homely vibe which is only exaggerated as the chefs operate alongside the waiting staff in bringing the food to tables. It creates a flawless atmosphere & one that any restaurant in the world could learn from.
The menu options are 5-course or 8-course. We opted for the former, having spent all day nibbling away at cheeses as we worked through vineyard tours. Three of our team do not enjoy mackerel & given that was the main fish dish, Head Chef himself came over & gave us alternate options without any drama or concern.
The first thing to hit our table was a small, billowing pestle & mortar, filled with green herbs & the after effects of dry ice. It’s an impressive start, as well as practical since into this was piped fresh, soft butter which when mixed with the icy greens, turned into a perfectly textured, flavoured spread. This was delicious smeared over a freshly cooked flatbread.
The other snacks included a mackerel pate with linseed cracker. For those, now public, non-mackerel eaters the kitchen have cleverly created an alternate option. Nice touch. After that, came a kangaroo tartar, which sat on a little crisp bread. It was a first for me & as good as any beef tartar. Nicely spiced & with lean, tasty protein.
We then moved into the starter. This was the most memorable dish of the night. It might even be one of the most memorable dishes for Roaming & Ravenous. It was Jersey milk haloumi, pumpkin puree, native greens, pine nuts & a burnt butter sauce. Relatively simple on paper but my god, this was extraordinary. The buttery pumpkin, soft haloumi, bitterness of greens & the most heavenly butter sauce made this a dish where all six of us were mopping up the sauce with our fingers. It was the ultimate example of simple, extraordinary ingredients cooked to utter perfection. Go just for that.
After this came our fish dish. Spanish mackerel with cucumber & dill. It was a generous piece of fish, cooked perfectly with a light, refreshing cucumber salad. This included these itsy, bitsy, tiny little cucumbers that I’ve not seen before but in spite of their small stature, they packed a punch. It was another hit.
The meat course was good, but perhaps the least memorable. It was Australian Wagyu beef on a risotto with black mushrooms, daikon & wasabi. The beef was tasty but sitting on a very heavily seasoned risotto, it came off second best. It was too strong with heat & mustard which overwhelmed the dish somewhat. Enjoyable certainly, but not well balanced.
The final dish, dessert, was another cracker. Hay and wattle seed custard, covered in a coat of crushed macadamia, puffed up grains & chocolate. The custard centre was divine. Smooth, rich, malty & indulgent & the crumb that was showered over the top gave it all the texture it needed. It was stunning.
Throughout the entire dinner, the staff were exceptional. Water & wine glasses were never wanting, Head Chef was a delight. Modest, passionate & clearly an unbelievable talent.
We were treated to a little bag of homemade cookies as we enjoyed our teas & left feeling like we had eaten in one of the best restaurants in the region. It sets the standard for informal, stunning eating & we would rush back in a heartbeat.
EXP, 1596 Broke Rd, Pokolbin, Hunter Valley, Australia