Some places have a reputation that precedes them. Manfredi at Bells at Killcare Boutique Hotel, Restaurant & Spa is one such place, though strangely, despite its easy proximity from Sydney, I’d never visited. Taking the Gosford exit, and winding around the various channels and bays of Brisbane Water, you’ll feel like you’re about to holiday in suburbia. However when you come upon the entrance to this boutique hotel on the ascent towards Bouddi National Park, you will finally get the sense that you’re somewhere else entirely.
The property is centred on a large one-storey manor house surrounded by manicured gardens, dotted with a series of cottages.
They bandy about the word Hamptons to describe them; referring to the place where wealthy New Yorkers escape for their summer holidays.
For those not familiar with the proclivities of America's East Coast ruling class, it means faded blues and neutral linens, nautical stripes, white painted timber blinds and timber floors in spacious cottages that look artificially casual, when they’re actually luxurious.
Take the in-room snacks as an example: you’ll be doing your late-night munching on mackerel fillets in organic olive oil, and bags of honey smoked BBQ and wild thyme chips. Yes, Bells is the type of place where you feel like you need to speak in a whisper, lest they eject you for gatecrashing a playground of the super-rich.
While the Manfredi dinner menu prices even had me wincing, Sunday Family Lunch ($70/head) presents the opportunity to hobnob with the upper classes without too scary a bottom line. Leaving the comfortable dining room for dinnertime, we took advantage of the gorgeous day with lunch on the terrace, bounded by manicured green hedges.
The four-course lunch is served sharing style, starting with trays of antipasti bearing figs with Gorgonzola, and lardo crustini.
Cubes of spanner crab and zucchini frittata rank among the lightest I’ve tried.
For the pasta course, we tuck into patriotic trays of stracci alla Sorrentina that intertwine the rag-shaped pasta with red tomatoes, green basil leaves and torn white mozzarella.
Not quite as picturesque, our braised beef cheek main arrives on a plentiful amount of mushroom puree. The cheeks split easily with a fork, with all their internal connective tissue transformed into melting, meaty richness.
We pass around bowls of green beans and roasted parsnips to offset the dish’s hearty intensity.
Nobody leaves hungry, especially after honey gelati draped by crostoli with a scattering of seasonal fruit.
The extensive wine list celebrates Italian wines, but has plenty to amuse those who favour other global wine regions. It’s here your bill can easily begin to climb, but it’s possible to drink well at the bottom end of the list, or you can stick to craft beers like the Lord Nelson Brewery Pale Ale. After dabbling extensively in an off-dry Germanic Riesling I take in the indigenous Australian healing techniques at the Bells Day Spa, while my partner squeezes in a last swim of the season in their inground pool. Therapist Ngaire has indigenous heritage, and clearly believes in the Li'tya product range she’s presenting across a rhythmic Kodo massage, relaxing facial, and heated Quandong hair and scalp treatment followed by a lovely Yulu tea. They’re all part of the Bells Signature Special ($220/90 minutes), which leaves me relaxed and rejuvenated, and almost ready to take on dinner.
Dinner’s where the train came off the rails a bit. After a good start with freshly shucked Oysters ($30/6), my partner looked a bit disappointed with his measly serve of Spaghetti ($38) lightly coated with Tasmanian sea urchin butter and dusted with bottarga.
Poured across a flat, black plate, my Gnocchi ($38) with black mussels, broccoli puree and broccolini was more plentiful, but otherwise unremarkable; not branching far from something we could make for ourselves at home. A fairly plain Glacier 51 Toothfish ($50) kept the in-laws happy with accompanying borlotti beans, leaks and mild pepperoncini.
Perhaps the problem is that as a diner, there’s an upper limit to what I’ll pay to worship at the altar of rustic Italian. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve enjoyed better rustic Italian dishes for considerably less coin, including at other Manfredi restaurants like Balla Osteria without leaving Sydney. Yes, they’re making everything in house, but so do many Sydney restaurants who charge half the price, leaving me to wonder should diners really be penalised for heading to regional gems?
A King Spa Suite at Bells at Killcare will set you back $420 for the night. Breakfast is included in this not inconsiderable room rate, but I was surprised to find this boutique property didn’t see fit to include the little things, like a turndown service helping guests by storing day cushions, spraying for (plentiful) nighttime mosquitoes, and shutting all those picturesque wooden louvered blinds.
Well-made Espresso di Manfredi coffees, house-made pastries and breads, verrines of strawberry topped tangy yoghurt, bircher muesli and fresh fruit are supplemented by a made-to-order hot breakfast.
Despite knowing the smoked bacon comes from Sydney gem, Pino's Dolce Vita, in combination with lovely yellow scrambled eggs, it somehow leaves me with the sense that I'm finally in the country, with happy pigs and chickens roaming close by. I guess that means the whole Bells of Killcare experience was restorative after all.
Bells at Killcare
107 The Scenic Road, Killcare Heights
Ph: (02) 4349 7000