With many Sydney chefs, including Pasi Petenan with Café Paci 2.0, moving away from degustation dining, it’s interesting to see a set menu restaurant thrive in Pokolbin. Perhaps it’s exploring the Hunter Valley’s surrounding vineyards that encourages diners to slow down and settle in for a long, leisurely meal at EXP. Restaurant.
Attached to Oakvale Winery, EXP. is a minimalist space that revolves around nature for both the white room’s decorative elements, the serving vessels, and of course, what’s presented in and upon them.
Pulling up on the banquette side of the chunky wooden table gives you a view of the long galley-style open kitchen. It’s framed by a mossy green organic wall above (the work of Bloodwood Botanica), and counter seats below. The latter provide guests with an uninterrupted view of the dishes owner/chef Frank Fawkner and his team are creating, with kitchen banter helping to make EXP. a welcoming spot for solo diners. Wine is reasonably priced with a list that extends beyond vineyard and region. We opt for the 2018 Stefano Lubiana 'Primavera' Chardonnay ($75) from Tasmania’s Derwent Valley, and find it's an elegant chardonnay that balances yellow nectarine and soft woody complexity.
In terms of food, while you can opt for the shorter EXP.osure ($85/person) menu, being first-time visitors, we dive upon the full EXP.erience ($110/person).
Cleverly it begins with a flurry of snacks that shuts your stomach up and encourages you to relax about pacing. Scallop roe is turned into airy crackers you smear with house-made taramasalata.
Creamy squares of golden haloumi are speared from a pond of black garlic, olive oil and lime with what you could be forgiven for calling the most pretentious fork of all time, until you discover it is itself a sculpture by Mark Aylward. Glistening slices of duck ham are presented warm on toasted focaccia from Fawk Foods Kitchen & Bakery. While EXP. has been in business for five years, the restaurant’s companion bakery, located in the heart of Pokolbin village, was started by Fawkner about 18-months ago.
Baking does prove to be a bit of a highlight, with both a burnt brandy snap filled with fine chicken liver parfait and arguably the best sourdough crumpet of all time, that I'll return to later in the meal.
Fawkner’s bakery produces great straight up bread too, especially against house-cultured butter flavoured with native herbs and crunchy salt flakes.
Next up, frothy Sebago potato and olive oil cream tangos with local pearl oyster mushrooms, umami powder, kelp powder, and skinless sour pickled cucumber slices. There’s something about this soup-like dish that reminds me of gazpacho, while still feeling unique (even to someone with an extensive restaurant history). Redgate Farm quail, from up the road in Raymond Terrace, is presented with zucchini ribbons, shiso mint, and red plum pieces and puree. While this dish felt local and seasonal, I struggled to find a compelling thread uniting these ingredients on the plate.
The other thing I wasn’t quite sold on was the music – Australian Crawl, Dire Straits – just felt wholly inappropriate for the setting. When we raise the playlist, our young waiter enthused about the recent Elton John concert, so maybe the musical selection speaks more towards the type of artists that tour wine regions. The music is a good analogy for this restaurant - good, fun food presented in ways that are not always bound by the tyranny of good taste. Take the wagyu sausage roll as a prime example, presented on a log, it's served with a beef fat emulsion (a mayonnaise that tastes of beef fat).
It’s meant as a companion to the wagyu beef sourced from nearby Scone. Soft and well-rested with plenty of flavour, on this plate the beef is presented with another collection of ingredients - charred fushimi peppers, juicy, acidic heirloom tomatoes and smoky baba ghanoush – again not overly unified, but all good fun to eat; except maybe the sausage roll dipped in beef fat, which had me wondering if I might need a cardiologist before the night was over.
The best thing I put in my mouth at EXP. was the Sourdough Crumpet ($15 add-on). Made using a sourdough starter from the bakery, it’s served with honeycomb and Tarwin blue cheese that’s been whipped with cream, then scooped into a quenelle and dusted with shavings of frozen blue cheese. I loved this dish and would return to EXP. just to eat it again.
The crumpet occupies my mind through ‘peaches and cream’ where the peaches are presented as sorbet, jam and puree, against cream and meringue mixed in liquid nitrogen. Broken up with delicate lemon myrtle jelly, it’s a pleasant homage to the waning season.
Local blueberries, bound up into a Swiss roll cake with buttermilk ice cream and a black sesame sable (shortbread), feels like overkill and makes me wish I’d stopped at the peaches.
Between the rose gummy bears and the Davidson plum biscuits that follow, you certainly feel like you get bang for your buck in these here parts. The staff are super-friendly too, with our waitress explaining she also works at the restaurant’s bakery: “I’m studying hospitality, I did my placement here and they gave me a job. I work in a pharmacy too, but I like this industry - it’s late hours, but you always have something to do.” Despite set menus and fine dining motifs, there's something down-to-earth and genuine about EXP.
1596 Broke Road, Pokolbin
Ph: (02) 4998 7264