There are some things in life that are so well-defined, so well-accepted, they are considered fixed points. Axioms, if you will. For example, ask a Sydneysider for a weekend road trip getaway recommendation and you’ll invariably hear two words: Hunter Valley. An axiomatic conclusion.
It’s time for Mudgee to redefine that axiom.
Date Last Visited: 19-21 May 2017
Address: (Blue Wren Winery & Farmhouse) 433 Ulan Road, Mudgee
Price Guide (approx): $95pp plus drinks (at Blue Wren), $25pp plus drinks (at Pipeclay Farmhouse)
I was invited to visit Mudgee by Kip Harris, owner and head chef at Blue Wren Cellar Door & Farmhouse via Tyrrell PR. I was provided two nights’ accommodation at the Farmhouse at Blue Wren, as well as one dinner and lunch service at the Restaurant at Blue Wren. All other locations visited/products purchased in this post were independently paid-for, and at my own discretion. The Usual Disclaimer applies for all Blue Wren-related commentary.
Let’s get real for a second: I certainly don’t profess to have kept the ‘hidden gem’ that is Mudgee a secret of mine all this time. Indeed, I too was a sucker for world-famous regions like the Hunter. Fair enough: it is home to some of the world’s best wines (and in particular, Semillons), and plenty of attractions to boot.
However, there comes a time when one starts to ask the question ‘but is there anywhere else in NSW that’s just as good?’
Mudgee is the answer to that question.
As a region, Mudgee is nowhere near as large as the Hunter, with around 4o cellar doors vs the Hunter’s 150. However, the thing is I’ve always felt the Hunter to be a little too sparse, without much of a heart to it. It’s really an exercise in hopping between wineries, cheese & chocolate factories. Mudgee on the other hand, has a full town, and the region is explorable in a long weekend, making it a very ‘doable’ long-weekender for us time-starved Sydneysiders.
It’s around three and a half hours from Sydney, with some seriously scenic driving via the Blue Mountains as a lovely road trip option.
So, perhaps a visit then? We’ll have to talk about where to stay and eat – and that’s where Blue Wren comes in.
The Farmhouse at Blue Wren
Remember how I said there are around 40 cellar doors in Mudgee? Blue Wren is one member of this rarefied company, with fully-furnished, luxury farmhouse accommodation a stone’s throw away from the main cellar door building. At the cellar door is one of the only Mudgee wineries offering full-service dining – the Restaurant at Blue Wren. More on that in the next section.
The farmhouse itself is an upmarket abode with five large bedrooms sleeping up to 10 people comfortably. While you get what you pay for paying for one of its rooms, the farmhouse is at its most cost-effective when it’s fully booked-out.
As one would expect, the farmhouse is fully furnished, with all of the amenities you might find at a four star hotel. There’s a comprehensive kitchen, a lounge, dining room, a pool, and even a conference room – though this last one felt a little out of place with the rest of the abode, with an overly corporate look & feel.
As per its farmhouse nature, the property is surrounded by the beauty of Mudgee’s autumn colours: grapevines, gardens and somewhat surprisingly, cherry trees. It would be remiss of any visitor not to take a good, long walk around the property soaking it all in.
While the farmhouse was undoubtedly a luxuriant experience, it behoove them to install soap rests in the showers. There was actually no place to put soap/other misc toiletries other than the ground: how awkward!
The Restaurant & Cellar Door at Blue Wren
A brisk walk from Blue Wren’s farmhouse is all it takes to reach the Cellar Door – a great idea if you don’t intend to remain sober; well, it is a winery!
With that, we move onto the dining room at Blue Wren. One’s eyes can’t help but be drawn to the striking communal wine tasting table that lies at the heart of the space. Gotta make sure the place where the boozing happens is on point, right?
While I’m not much of a drinker, I happily obliged when Paul, Blue Wren’s general manager, offered a tasting of Blue Wren’s best bottles. Unlike many other wine tastings which take place over a counter, Blue Wren breaks down the borders by inviting punters to sit down, relax and a enjoy a tasting flight of 5 of Blue Wren’s best wines with convivial conversation. At $10 a flight (with the cost waived if 2+ bottles are purchased), pricing is reasonable.
For me, I particularly liked the rosé & white port varieties – I couldn’t help but take home a bottle or two! All tipples here have a fixed price of $25, and are only available to purchase at the cellar door.
Oh sorry, where was I? Oh yes, that stunning dining room. What I find particularly clever is the way elements that would traditionally be concealed are shown off without reservation – exposed corrugation, insulation foil, and partially treated wood still express Blue Wren’s farmhouse roots. Small details, perhaps, but that’s what matters.
Blue Wren Restaurant doesn’t typically accommodate more than 16 diners on a given night, allowing every diner to partake in the dining room’s intimacy, warmth, and privacy. However, the best seats in the house are unequivocally at the chef’s table. Here on offer is a near-unobstructed view of Blue Wren’s chefs in action, active dialogue with the talents behind the pans, and an understanding of every morsel on every plate. As foodies, a chef’s table is the automatic pick.
Speaking of the chefs, say hello to Kip and Steve. With many decades of combined experience in cooking at hotel restaurants all around the world, the two make for a well-oiled combo, whose teamwork and cohesion was made evident in the two meals we experienced. The fact that Kip’s self-taught is also another impressive feather in his cap.
Kip also happens to be the owner of Blue Wren, so it’s all-or-nothing for him in putting his heart and soul into transforming the winery into what it is today.
Kip’s vision for the Restaurant at Blue Wren isn’t the $18 quick & easy pub steak; it’s the full experience, a multi-course sensation not unlike a degustation. We may be talking fine dining – but with perhaps less pomp, and more heart. Kip’s philosophy is simple: to cook food that leaves people happy, full and satisfied; but doing so with novel techniques, unique flavour combinations, and attention to detail – all to attain that boundary-pushing edge.
Knowing this makes Blue Wren’s prix fixe lunch & dinner pricing of $95 seem a lot more reasonable. It’s certainly on the high side for a regional restaurant, though as you’re about to see, you get your money’s worth. You certainly won’t be hungry for a Maccas run after Kip & Steve’s through with you. The portions are deliberately massive – a blessing and a curse; one of those rare times when ‘I’m Still Hungry’ didn’t live up to the name.
Blue Wren’s Autumn Menu
Right now, Blue Wren is serving its winter menu, though with many carryovers from its autumn offering, it would be sensible to start my recap there. Mudgee being quite cold during this time, a hearty meal was promised; a hearty meal was delivered.
Chef Steve delivered on the promise of moreishness right out of the gate, with a bread course of sourdough fried in duck fat. Already, I began to understand just how Kip & Steve choose to see food differently. Sure, a plate of quality sourdough untouched by oil would have more than sufficed. But duck fat-fried? Game on, people. Game on. Super crunchy, these were a joy to eat.
Pea veloute w/white truffle oil came next, and suffice to say, it passed the ‘do I want to drink another litre of this’ test with flying colours.
Make that 2 litres. The intensity of umami, parmesan and earthy peas intertwined with the smoothness of the creamy soup was sublime – it’s my favourite dish off the menu.
Our next course was an all-too eye catching number appropriately named the golden egg. A perfectly-cooked 63C egg lies on a generous bed of squid ink rice, surrounded with roasted enoki mushrooms, topped with purple sunflower petals and bronzed sopressa salami.
I’m going to sound like George from Masterchef here: this was a yummy, yummy dish. The spicy salami brought out a ton of flavour, which the creamy ‘yolkiness’ of the egg ferried through to the bed of al dente rice below with great efficacy.
My two bugbears with this dish were that the salami was a little too leathery at certain places, and there was far too much of the squid ink rice relative to the other elements (‘generous’ is selling it short). So much so that I ran out of salami/egg yolk with which to flavour the rice.
Hey, it was still a yummy dish – and with it struck from the winter menu, a shame.
Being inland, Mudgee isn’t exactly renowned for its seafood, but that didn’t stop Kip from trying his best with crispy skinned salmon & Himalayan salt rock-seared scallop. It’s served with a flurry of garnishes, with the lumpfish caviar, smoked potato puree and lightly crushed broad beans being particularly noteworthy.
Though the salmon was ostensibly the highlight ingredient, the perfectly-cooked salt rock-seared scallop was the real star of the dish. Pro-tip: cook your scallops on a salt rock for perfection, every time. The texture was sashimi-level, no kidding.
All the other elements were certainly tasty – broad beans cooked to a semi-mushy softness, creamy & robust mashed potato, and oodles of umami-rich lumpfish eggs that pop in the mouth. However, I remember the dish as one where the parts are greater than its sum. It could have used some simplification; there was perhaps just a little too much going on – two plates’ worth, in fact.
While it may be the middle dish of the meal, the crispy skinned duck breast is actually Kip’s personal favourite, one he’d ‘never consider taking off the menu’. What’s so special about it? Is it the crispy duck breast itself? Actually no – I found it to be not very crispy at all unfortunately, and more criminally, the fat insufficiently rendered from the skin, leading to a gooey, chewy mouthfeel.
Then is it the plethora of pickled vegetables and garnishes, with their satisfying tartness and salty zing? Not quite that either.
It’s all about that bruleed duck liver ice cream. Never mind the duck itself – ice cream made from its liver is where it’s at! Duck pate is already used prevalently in many ubiquitous dishes such as Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, and pretty much every other terrine. To turn it into an ice cream and then torching it to bring out all the smoky, caramel-burnt notes of this gamey, earthy ingredient? Pure genius – Kip truly being in his element; I can see why this dish is a keeper. Fix up that duck and it will be nothing short of incredible.
The final savoury course for the night is – tada – steak. But of course, this is no suspiciously-discounted rump, it’s nothing less than sous vide chateaubriand. The fillet is cooked for exactly 40 minutes at 60C, then pan seared. It’s coated with 100% cacao powder giving a rich, dark & earthy hit, corn puree for sweetness, horseradish snow for a hit of heat, and served with honey-roasted garlic, black pudding, a ‘microwave special’ spinach sponge, and finally and perhaps controversially – Vegemite foam.
Whoa, another case of doing a little too much, perhaps? Well, kinda. But this time it’s a symphony, rather than a cacophony, with classic flavour pairings expressed through left-of-field ingredients. Beef and earthiness: enter bitter dark chocolate. Beef and mustard: hello horseradish dust. A classic minute steak w/spinach? Zap – here comes a microwave spinach sponge cake! Heck, even the salty, pungent Vegemite foam was welcome, albeit in small doses.
There is a cogent argument that the beef could be paired with fewer condiments and still come out as an excellent dish, but you know what? I didn’t mind it at all in this instance.
By this point in the meal, I was seriously reconsidering renaming my blog to “I’m Still Stuffed”; the generous portions have been as gratifying as they were rich.
But then came dessert: beautiful quenelles of raspberry & blueberry sorbets, liquorice custard, chocolate mint and soil. Kip explained that the sorbets are made from pure fruit, and that’s pretty much it. I was a bit suspicious, because they tasted kinda magical. Heh.
So simple, but easily the heroes of the plate. One element that didn’t fully work for me was the liquorice custard, but liquorice has always been an extremely personal preference of the palate – your mileage may vary.
The impossible was accomplished: Kip’s managed to end a monster of a meal on a light and refreshing note.
The absolute last morsel for the night were simple chocolate truffles. Dark decadent chocolate is too rich for me even at the best of times, but that didn’t stop me from lapping mine up.
I’ll save my concluding comments for the autumn menu at the end of Blue Wren’s winter menu (below), as they are the same. Without further ado, let’s fast forward a day and bring it on!
Blue Wren’s Winter Menu
When it comes to Blue Wren’s winter offering, Kip’s thinking doesn’t deviate much: Mudgee is cold across both seasons, though with winter taking it up a notch, so too does the heartiness level of the winter dishes.
We kicked off our lunch with that same great duck fat-fried sourdough, and quickly moved onto a soup of Celeriac, broad beans, peas, asparagus, poached egg, truffle oil & parmigiano reggiano.
I’m sorry – but this soup is guaranteed to be warmer than any hug your loved ones could ever give you. It enveloped with grassroots-like richness: brawny, buttery, cheesy truffle flavour, yet it remained dainty with vegetal notes of broad beans and peas.
You’re not meant to finish this – it’s a huge portion that would constitute a substantial entree/small main in any normal meal, especially given the poached egg that further augmented the soup’s depth and texture. But this is Blue Wren, so it’s only course number one.
And of course I finished it. Heh.
Course #2 is a carbon copy of the crispy skinned duck breast & duck liver ice cream brulee from the previous night’s (autumn) dinner. Props to its consistency, which translated into that same amazing, browned, creamy and full-bodied duck liver ice cream. It does however also mean that the same underwhelming duck breast was served.
Actually, I lied about the ‘carbon copy’ part. There is one extra addition to the winter rendition of the duck: pedro ximenez caviar. I’m no stranger to getting a little boozy during winter – these little baubles of tipple complemented the sweet, gamey flavours of the dish quite well. I just wished there were more!
The next plate was probably my favourite savoury of them all across both menus. Kip jocularly called it the cancer pork belly w/house XO. The logic is if something tastes this good, it’s got to be bad for you, right?
I certainly don’t disagree with the first part (and hope science never proves the second). This was seriously delectable pork belly; the best protein Kip’s done; as tasty as it looked. The fact that the XO was just so punchy, so unapologetically full of flavour, that it pretty much brought back all the fond memories of great pork belly I ate when growing up in China. Of course, I should mention that the texture was perfect – just enough gelatine viscosity, rendered fat, and tender lean meat; the pigs that die for Blue Wren’s winter menu do not go in vain.
Yes, there were superfluous elements on the plate: the pork neck croquette, which to me was an addition that added heaviness to a dish which didn’t require it; the scallop, while perfectly cooked, didn’t really square up sitting next to pork belly with ten times the flavour & textural intensity. And then there’s the al dente barley, though there was just a bit too much of the stuff.
Keep the pork belly and that XO, replace everything else with some greens, and I’d be a very happy camper. As the dish is now, I’d literally considered setting up camp at the table for the risk of food coma-ing.
And that wasn’t even the main event! That honour belonged to a familiar sous vide chateaubriand w/cacao, smoked potato puree, morels & vegemite foam. Kip’s winter rendition of beef takes it up a level – literally, into the third dimension, with visually striking dehydrated pear & black pudding crisps. These paired with the beef quite well – the black pudding adding a rich, salty zing and tinged with just a trace of sweetness from the pear. The beef itself was quite good – medium rare, with excellent texture. While there wasn’t too much flavour in the meat itself, the vegemite foam promptly dispelled any notion of under-seasoning.
I particularly liked the morels on the dish – chewy, juicy and earthy. These admittedly expensive fungi are always welcome on my plate.
Kip’s autumn dessert set a bar so high I wasn’t sure if he could clear it with the winter number of cinnamon doughnut & banana ice cream. Okay, he didn’t. But, that’s primarily due to my well-documented preference for fruitier, lighter desserts.
Thus, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out that the banana ice cream was my favourite element, by a long shot. If bananas could ever be transposed linearly into ice cream form, yet somehow retaining all of that ‘banana-ey’ goodness, this ice cream pulled it off. Silky smooth, buttery mouthfeel, yet imparting an incredibly uplifting ‘feel good’ moment.
I also quite liked all the different levels of crunch brought about by the various crumbles, as well as the occasional bite of the milky Callebaut white chocolate (despite white choc not being my thing). The only element that I doughnut (heh) get was the cinnamon doughnut. It was quite dense, and not particularly tasty; it was probably meant to be eaten with the ice cream, but I much preferred to lap that up by itself.
The Blue Wren Experience
Kip Harris intends three things when he feeds diners at Blue Wren. One, to not leave them hungry; two, to facilitate an intimate experience for diners that’s as ingenuous as it is amiable; three, to serve absolutely delicious food, with novel techniques, elements and flavours.
#1 and #2 were delivered with aplomb. Blue Wren is indisputably a fine experience, even more so that it’s located in regional Mudgee – not to mention managing to reflect the rustic nature of farmhouse dining. In terms of #3, the hits were numerous, and there is plenty of praise to be levied. However, there is a ample room for improvement. As Kip’s got full creative control of Blue Wren’s culinary direction, I fully expect great things in the works.
And then there’s that lovely farmhouse. A beautiful space at which I’d be happy to stay again and again. I would certainly go back. In fact, there are already plans in the works!
More Mudgee Food Goodness – Mudgee Farmer’s Market
Kip did such a stunning job stuffing us with lunch & dinner at Blue Wren that there was little scope to eat anything else.
BUT, if you’re a produce buff and/or like to cook your own food, there’s no excuse missing out on Mudgee’s Farmer’s Market, run every 3rd Saturday of every month at the local St Mary’s Cathedral. A farmers market in the strict sense of the word, you’re guaranteed that every stall there is showcasing legitimately local produce from the Mudgee region.
I personally bought some potato sourdough, hot sauce from Linda’s Chilli Relish, and oil from Rylstone Olive Press – considered one of the best olive oils in the world. It was a real struggle not to walk away with more!
It’s a solid market, you’re missing out a big part of what Mudgee has to offer should you skip!
Mudgee Honey Haven
One of Mudgee’s key exports is actually its local honey, so Honey lovers cannot miss out on Mudgee Honey Haven, only a 5min drive from the Mudgee town centre. There’s literally over 30 types of honey to taste and buy, with some cheeky boozy variants as well!
I have to say, honey liqueur is absolutely delicious – you don’t want to be the designated driver for this!
Breakfast at Pipeclay Pumphouse
With Blue Wren having taken solid charge of lunch and dinner, we were left to our own devices when it came to breakfast. That meant an opportunity to visit Pipeclay Pumphouse, a homely restaurant cafe situated at Robert Stein Winery, a short drive from Blue Wren.
While Pipeclay Pumphouse’s main game is lunch and dinner service, they are a key player in the Mudgee breakfast scene.
Their unofficial signature dish is the bacon & egg gnocchi w/truffle oil & baby herbs. It’s good gnocchi with punchy bacon; a hearty breakfast that’s sure to be a hit in winter.
We also got the potato & dill pancake w/smoked salmon, which was more your typical ‘savoury pancake stack’ of sorts. The pumphouse’s version is prettier than most, and I’m always a sucker for salmon, eggs & avo. That said, our avocado was a bit too firm – suggesting that it may not have been fully ripened.
Make sure to get the gnocchi, if anything!
We only had a short two days to spend in Mudgee. We certainly could have doubled our trip and have had plenty to do. Many thanks to Kip for hosting & feeding us, allowing us to get the best of Blue Wren, and to scratch the beginning of the Mudgee iceberg.
I can’t wait to come back.
All accommodation and meals at Blue Wren were provided gratis by Kip Harris. Produce from the Mudgee Farmer’s Markets and breakfast at Pipeclay Pumphouse were independently paid for.