Monday, 13 April 2015

Hunter haunt has the EXP. factor

Husband-and-wife team Frank and Emma Fawkner are forging their own path at EXP. Restaurant.
EXP. Restaurant's head chef Frank Fawkner is visibly proud of the ground he stands on. After spending the last four years working as head chef at Muse Restaurant, the ambitious young chef has taken some of what he has learnt from his friend and mentor Troy Rhoades-Brown and blended it with his own ambitions at the Oakvale Winery restaurant he opened with wife Emma in March.

Head chef Frank Fawkner is focused on giving diners a memorable EXP.erience at EXP.
The warmth that radiates from this happy couple seems to have been infused into the space and the reasons why the new eatery should be on the list of must-visit Hunter locales are many and varied: take the custom-made tables, the white-on-wood decor, the colour-coded crockery, whip-smart wine list, original artworks and general attitude of the warm and friendly staff led by restaurant manager Danielle Doffay.

Everything from the staff aprons to the bespoke plates, artworks and furniture has been well thought out.

"I feel that dining at a restaurant should be about everything - from fabulous food and wine, to the music, service, art, painting, crockery, aromas, furniture and fit-out," says Fawkner.

Frank Fawkner can be found fossicking in the vegetable patch ahead of service at EXP. 
Of course, great restaurants rely on more than just a fab fit-out and bespoke furnishings, and a quick glimpse of the menu, which is divided into Food from the Earth, Sea, Land and Sky, Cheese and Sweets, is a good starting point when it comes to understanding the EXP. factor.

Oakvale Winery has become even more of a destination with the addition of EXP.
Fawkner was part of the team led by Rhoades-Brown that helped the acclaimed restaurant achieve two-hat-status in The Sydney Morning Herald's Good Food Guide 2015. As with Muse, part of the EXP. theatre is watching the 27-year-old chef in the galley-style kitchen as he calmly presides over food from a menu that is totally responsive to the seasons.

Head chef Frank Fawkner prevails over the pass with a Zen-like calm. 
The key to the EXP. concept is authenticity, and the reason the place feels so real is that diners get a sense that the team - both front- and back-of-house - seem to genuinely love what they do. As fans of Fawkner's work at Muse will recognise, the chef's inspiration is rooted in regional produce, some of which is grown just metres from the entrance to the restaurant.

Diners are encouraged to pulverise their own herbs to add to the butter for house-made focaccia.
The first dish to arrive at our table is so fresh that it certainly enlivens and amuses our bouches. It's a mortar and pestle brimming with fresh herbs from the garden beds where Fawkner is seen fossicking ahead of service.

The just-picked herbs have been blasted with liquid nitrogen, which spills like a storm front over the rim of the mixing bowl before dissipating. It's a magical act one, scene one, as we are handed the pestle and invited to pulverise the herbs at the table, mix them with house-churned butter and then spread liberally over a fresh spongey cube of just-baked focaccia.

EXP. menu reads like a love letter to the land, with some ingredients grown metres from the restaurant door.
Like much of Fawkner's menu, the dishes are both innovative and earthy.  Fawkner takes his inspiration from the techniques he has learnt everywhere from the UK - where he worked as sous chef under Tom Aikens at Tom's Kitchen - to Australia. Fawkner describes working at Muse as a defining moment of his career, and says Rhoades-Brown was a great mentor, fast-tracking his career when he appointed him head chef in 2013.

From the earth: house-made haloumi, heirloom tomato, manzanillo olive and herbs.
While the chef is quick to pay tribute to his good friend, he says he is also thrilled to be at the helm of his own restaurant in the thick of NSW's most famous wine-producing region.

"Working at Muse was a great platform for me to develop as a chef. Being part of the team when Muse Restaurant reached two hats also gave me a hunger to find my own voice. I really look up to Troy. I aspire to be like him. He's cool, calm and humble and he's taught me everything I need to know. Where a lot of chefs might just wave you goodbye, Troy has been an open book when it comes to helping me set up EXP." he says.

From the land and sky: chorizo-spiced bacon, chickpeas, spiced broth and lemon. 
The philosophy behind EXP. is on the experience. While Fawkner and Rhoades-Brown both favour a similar contemporary style of cooking, EXP. embraces a more pared-back rustic approach, with less components on the plate. The chef also aims to give the freedom of choice back to the diner so there is no menu, no set order of dishes. Instead, the diner can curate their own adventure on a plate and choose from a range of exceptional dishes that read like a love letter to the land.

Chef's signature dish: black garlic risotto, cauliflower, pyengana cheddar and nasturium.
One of the dishes that most excites is the black garlic risotto with cauliflower, cheddar and nasturtium. It is black and white with nice fresh green leaves.

It's ham on toast, but not as you know it. with duck and macadamia on focaccia
From the Land and Sky section, the ham on toast with duck, focaccia, fig, macadamia and mizuna also tells a story about what Fawkner is about. Sweet tooths will also go nuts for the dark chocolate shell, basil parfait and passionfruit gel, basil jellies and caramelised chocolate, one of Fawkner's signature desserts at Muse.

Chef Frank Fawkner plating up with precision at the pass at EXP. Restaurant.
If you fail to snag a ticket to one of the wine events at the Hunter Valley Wine & Food Month, console yourself with a booking at EXP. 1596 Broke Rd, Pokolbin. + 61 4998 7264. If you would like to view the full program for the Hunter Valley Wine and Food Month in June, click here.

Warm blue cheese, brioche, honey and marigold falls under the Cheese heading.

Carla Grossetti was a guest of The Hunter Valley Wine Country.

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