There’s a new energy to Bells at Killcare Restaurant & Bar, which has passed into the capable hands of Executive Chef Dean Jones, since my last visit. Having completed his apprenticeship under the former restaurateur, Stefano Manfredi, Jones built upon his experience overseas by spending time at London’s popular River Café. Returning with a good understanding of this restaurant’s nine-year Manfredi history, as well as a clear direction forward, Jones has been gradually developing the menu to reflect what the Central Coast wants from a contemporary, Italian-influenced fine diner.
Dining on a Saturday evening sees the room fill up around us with locals, most opting to eat the Seasonal Degustation Menu ($120/5 courses). Matched wine packages take it up to $190/person or $250/person if you’d like to drink premium wines.
We chose to order ala carte and dabble in the wine list ourselves. It’s a weighty tome, where even the by-the-glass list takes up two full pages, so you might need a cocktail to take it in, either in the bar, or at your assigned table.
Evergreen ($20) drinks like a gin-amped breakfast juice with a whiff of sambuca that pairs with the fragrant fennel garnish well. Big Night ($20) is basically an old fashioned with a bit more intrigue, and a lengthy, Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey finish.
We neck them with a ricotta frittata amuse bouche (a preview of tomorrow’s breakfast, perhaps) and house-baked bread.
Sadly we're not eating it with the Mudgee-based Bells at Killcare extra virgin olive oil, because they’ve run out of it and are awaiting their new-season shipment.
Today's Oysters ($5/each) come from the pristine waters of Merimbula and Pambula. They’re a shade dry – probably from being shucked a smidgen too early. The accompanying vinaigrette is too bold for their delicate, creamy maritime flavour, so I advise consuming them without.
With a little sommelier assistance, we eventually decide upon the 2015 Reyneke Chenin Blanc ($80/bottle) from Stellenbosch in South Africa. It’s an elegant, whole-bunch pressed bolder chenin blanc that presents citrus, stone, a bit of butterscotch, some restrained French oak, and a salty lick that responds very well to the excesses of Braised Bangalow Pork Jowl ($28). Arranged like a wall down one side of the plate, this unctuously fatty pork cheek looks like a small serve, but is actually pitched right. The texture feels like biting into brains or sweetbreads; so you’ll use up every last radish and parsley leaf to balance the intensity of it and the rich, bone marrow dressing.
Skull Island King Prawns ($30) are - in my humble opinion - Australia’s best king prawns. Jones pays them great respect by cooking them gently and not relying on char. Our crustaceans arrive with tantalisingly crisp legs (eat them!) and creamy white flesh cut by bursts of tangy fried capers and scattered green leaves. Three cleaved whole prawns served on their shells feels like a good size for an entrée, and it's one you’ll enjoy consuming so close to the sea.
The urge to eat seafood in this setting saw me opt for Rigatoni ($38) with cuttlefish, nduja and crisp pangrattato. Expecting to see some textural tentacles in the mix, I was fractionally disappointed to find a homey ragu with the whole cuttlefish and its squid ink sac put in the mincer Nonna-style. It’s tasty, but muddy and indistinct - at the price point I would have liked some light and shade.
Fish at Bells changes daily depending upon what has been caught by their local suppliers. Under a crisp golden crust, today’s Snapper ($MP) fillet responded particularly well to seaside-appropriate samphire and seaweed butter. It’s turned Italian with steamed cime di rape (turnip tops) – slightly bitter greens that are eaten all over Italy – and a salty jus that predisposes your palate to want dessert.
And you should want dessert here, it’s the course that’s improved the most under Jones’ kitchen regime. Everything comes up Apples ($19) in my favourite, a wonderful homage to the in-season fruit. It includes a punishingly tart apple yuzu curd that is perfectly balanced by apple crumble ice cream and crisp, diced green apple.
Menu newcomer, Tiramisu Cheesecake ($19), shines under a glassy chocolate top against dabs of jammy strawberry gel. The cheesecake itself is rich and creamy with a textbook biscuit base. The accompanying quenelle of coffee gelato is so good it makes me look forward to my coffee tomorrow morning… oh, did I forget to mention I’m lucky enough to be staying the night?
Cue me toddling back to my two-level villa very well sated.
Bells at Killcare Restaurant & Bar
107 The Scenic Road, Killcare Heights
Ph: (02) 4349 7000
NOTE: See a previous review of this restaurant (under a different chef) back HERE.