You know you’re onto a good thing when you rock up on a rainy Thursday summer evening and the car park is full. We’re greeted by the megawatt smile of Protocol’s Nichola Clark and the excited buzz and chatter of a well-loved local – it’s obvious new owners Dean and Genaea Calvert (the pair behind Heathcote’s legendary Valley Inn Tavern) have turned the place around, and in record time. As Nichola (on secondment from the Valley Inn Tavern) leads us to our table, we pass through the bustling bar’s polished rustic aesthetic – it’s tinged with an industrial edge courtesy of some heavy metal lighting suspended over the bar – and several intimate dining spaces. It’s a big space to be sure, but its cunningly zoned layout (including function room and a normally sun-drenched courtyard) ensures there’s plenty of options for those seeking a little privacy.
Seated at our table, we can see horizontal wine bottles lining a wall, Scandi-cool light fittings above, and a chain metal curtain that hints at the kitchen’s meaty pedigree. As we peruse the re-imagined menu (gastro pub with a twist) Nichola suggests a cocktail to start. Following a quick chat on our favourite flavours and tastes, she returns with a potent, spot-hitting Whisky Sour and a deliciously tropical French Martini. While the menu is filled with classics, we leap at two of the more left-of-centre offerings you might expect to find on a gastro pub menu, starting with Spiced Cauliflower and Homemade Pork Dumplings. We’re duly rewarded. Gently laced with Indian spices in a crispy coating following a light deep frying, the cauliflower’s an immediate hit. Equally impressive, the dumplings – with their crispy undersides and delicate pork filling – are dangerously delicious when plunged into a chilli-laden dipping sauce.
Deliberating over the mains, we seek Nichola’s expertise again, and lock in the Lamb Salad and the crowd-pleasing 450g Ribeye, also handing over the reins for a professional wine match. Relinquishing the decision-making has never turned out better. Representing serious value for money and a next level flavour combo, the Lamb Salad sees blushing slices of premium lamb atop a salad of earthy roast kumara, salty olives, creamy feta, the crunchy freshness of sweet capsicum, cucumber, and plump cherry tomatoes, all bound in a refreshing mint dressing. A sprinkling of dukkha brings a nutty spiciness that meets its silken match in a Mondillo Pinot Noir’s ripe plum and cherry flavours.
Definitely a statement dish, the well-proportioned ribeye arrives on the bone with a supremely buttery mash, crisp green beans and swirls of sweet beetroot relish and fresh basil salsa verde. Giving way effortlessly under the knife, the tender steak is all smoky, caramelised flavours, and is pure magic between sips of the perfectly paired 2011 Angus the Bull Cabernet Sauvignon’s blackberry-rich flavours and ripe tannins.
We meet our sticky end with a deliciously dense Sticky Date Pudding doused in a decadent caramel sauce, and a gravity-defying and taste bud-wowing Baileys and Chocolate Cheesecake, with plans to hit the courtyard on a sunny weekend afternoon for beers and to take the pizza menu for a spin.
2 Colombo Street
03 964 2880