Anyone complaining about the doom and gloom in the restaurant sector should visit Mandoon Estate.
It is a winery, cidery, craft beer producer and restaurant complex with three main venues and endless diversions, catering, it seems, for all of humanity.
From stroller-pushing parents who have turned their considerable flesh over to the tattooist’s arts, to well-heeled Chinese tourists quietly eating artistically plated modernisms, there is indeed something for everyone.
The Saturday we visited, 2500 punters were eating, drinking and carousing their way to lighter wallets and fond memories. Mandoon Estate is an extraordinary venue and proof — in these tough times — that, get the offer right and they’ll beat a path to your door and happily wait while you find a place to squeeze them in, Tokyo-commuter style.
What’s going on at Mandoon? Why is it such an extraordinary success at a time when the restaurant sector is in dire straits? What magic is afoot? For starters, the big, and I mean BIG, money behind this Swan Valley showpiece, was made in the shopping centre business. And you can see clever shopping centre design in the way the buildings, walkways, gathering places and sight corridors compel people to enter and explore and be subtly directed by good signage and open, non-threatening planning. Doorways are wide, ceilings lofty, lighting is good.
Where many restaurant buildings lack welcome and cause customers to pause, to think and perhaps to turn away, Mandoon’s strong, calm architecture grabs you from the carpark and exerts an irresistible pull on you. It’s a true delight. You want to be in there. You want it all. Please.
We visited the complex’s most up-market offering — its signature restaurant — because it seemed more fitting for West Weekend. I wish we had gone to the sprawling venue’s Homestead Brewery dining room or even its most casual offer, an outdoor, animal-on-a-spit, trestle-table-style beer garden. The restaurant is good, very good for a venue this size, but all through lunch we were bedevilled by the thought that we wanted to play with the cool kids next door. Classic FOMO.
The food? It is inventively plated in that modern way that descends directly from the kitchens of Noma. Scattered, tweezered and squirted garnishes are deployed with earnest brow-furrowing and, while we’ve seen it all before, it works here. All of the dishes looked the bomb.
They offer a $45 two-course lunch special and a five-course $110 degustation. Both are good value. We opted for the main menu.
Lemon myrtle-cured ocean trout, $24, was laid out in a line of ingredients across the middle of the plate. Flowers, thin slices of pickled radish, a smear or two of something and a perfect dice of translucent cured trout were artistically jumbled. The garnishes were so assertively flavoured they slapped the fish around the ears, eventually beating it into submission. The fish had no chance. Pluck a dice of trout off the plate and eat it without garnish and it was lovely: just sweet enough, just salty enough, just cured long enough, just perfect. Pity about the bombastic add-ons.
Goat’s curd panna cotta, $22, fared better. The “cotta” was set with gelatin but wasn’t rubbery or overset. It had a mild rosemary scent and was cut into a fetching rhomboid shape and garnished with a crumb of puffed, crunchy quinoa. Nice touch. Sound dish.
As we ordered mains, we saw a side of “aligot” on the menu. I nearly had an infarct just thinking about it. Aligot is potato’s highest calling, a silky whip of potato puree, butter and Cantal cheese. The proportions are about 1:1, potato to cheese/butter/cream. Imagine our excitement. Imagine the excitement of our cardiac surgeon. Imagine our disappointment at being served mashed potato with a bit of cheese. It wasn’t aligot — not even close — but it was an awesome, plate-lickable mashed potato.
The main courses were similar: show-offy plating (this kitchen really gets eye appeal) with techniques and cooking teetering on the modernist edge but conservative enough not to scare the horses. It is ambitious food, modern and beautiful to look at, just OK in execution and aimed squarely at pleasing those looking for a posh(ish) weekend lunch.
The wine at Mandoon Estate is good. Many have medals strewn over their labels like confetti. One shiraz has more gold medals on its label than a North Korean general has on his tunic. We were subsequently told that the owners also thought “medalled” wine labels were a little too Thirsty Camel for their emerging, aspirational portfolio of rapidly improving wines. There will be no more medals.
Every restaurateur on hard times should visit Mandoon, just to see what they’re doing. It is inspirational. And you, dear reader, should hot foot it to this remarkable venue and revel in the fun, welcome, customer-first experience and their unabashed delight at feeding and entertaining you.