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Australia’s best, in Subi

“Oooh yeah, oh baby yeah,” percolated and spluttered through the wads of white chocolate cake the gen-Xer at the next table was cramming into his mouth. With shards of chocolate and gobs of cream erupting from the sides of his over-stuffed face, the object of his desire was hideously plain to see. The cake was spectacular; constructed of ingredients with little hope of receiving the Heart Foundation tick of approval. It was sheer gastro-porn, and Mr Creosote at the next table was up to his elbows in it.

Try as he and his cargo-panted mates might, their appalling table manners – slouching over their food, eating with mouths so wide open one caught glimpses of serious orthodontic work and the high-spray environment of simultaneous talking and masticating – failed to put a dent in our delight in eating marvellous food in terrific surroundings on a sun-drenched late autumn day.

We were Sunday lunching on the terrace of the Subiaco Hotel Café while Perth’s protracted Indian summer sunlight washed downtown Subi in languid, luminous clarity.

It’s clear the Subi Hotel Café has not sat on its laurels following it being crowned Australia’s top hotel restaurant in the 1999 AHA awards. It’s three years since Food & Wine last reviewed the Subiaco Hotel Café and it has only improved in that time.

An entrée of chicken saté, peanut sauce ($11.50/$14.50) was, at first glance, anything but spectacular. That is, until it arrived at the table. The ability of the Subi Hotel Café kitchen to take the seemingly simple and elevate it to culinary status is what sets it apart. Two sticks of char-grilled chicken meat were perfectly grilled, still moist inside and scorched golden and black in parts on the outside. The meat wasn’t an afterthought. It was dense meat from the good part of the bird. The ice-cold peanut sauce should have been at room temperature or warmed through a little, but even this gaffe could not mask its freshness and faultless balance of peanut and chilli flavours. It was interestingly and innovatively presented.

The seafood chowder ($12.50) was perfectly, deliciously sublime. The soup was the consistency of country cream with a silky viscosity and long flavours. Its complex chemistry came, in part, from one of the finest mirepoix (a dice of carrot, celery and leek) I have encountered; evidence of unusual attention to detail, not to mention expert knife skills. The milky, creamy broth was lightly seasoned and rich with butter, but was neither gluey or oily. It was full to bursting with seafood, including a flaky smoked fish – either haddock or cod – a selection of white fish in coarse chunks and mussels. In a career of bad chowders (Australian chefs have great difficulty with this dish) it was quite simply the apotheosis of chowder cooking.

Squid fritters, lime and dill aioli ($10.50) delivered an interesting and subtle blend of flavour and texture. Made on finely minced squid meat, the five small balls were deep fried light and crispy.

It just kept getting better. A daily special of grilled fish of the day (barramundi on this occasion), field mushroom fritters, asparagus and garlic prawn mayonnaise ($24.00) was exceptional. The fish was excellent, the mushroom fritter a cute little innovation and the asparagus was blanched but still crunchy.

The pumpkin and ricotta panzarotti, tomato sauce ($16.50) was an uncomplicated dish. The half moon-shaped, ravioli-like parcels of pasta were cooked well. The filling was subtle. The tomato sauce was good.

The grilled lamb cutlets, lyonnaise potato, spinach, tomato pesto ($19.50) was a marvellous combination of colours, flavours and textures. Three loin chops were piled high on the potato slices. (Lyonnaise potatoes are typically sliced very thin on a mandolin and browned in a heavy pan with oodles of fat.) The spinach and tomato flavours cut through the strong meat and fat flavours. All was in perfect balance. Inexplicably, the chops had been cooked to their death. They were grey and lifeless. Such a disappointment.

We finished with a vanilla shortbread ($6.50): Two crisp shortbreads sandwiched over a very adult lemon flavoured crème anglais and dusted in icing sugar. WOW!

The wine list is fine for a standard café, but given that the Subi Hotel Café is anything but, it’s arguably a little short on selections. A couple of good pinots and perhaps a more intensely made chardonnay or two would give the drinker with a more refined palate something to look for.

Perky, cheerful staff deliver the service. Our waiter was particularly chatty and her cup ranneth over with youthful exuberance. She was sweet and genuine with it.

With Barry White crooning in the background and the Ally McBeal generation dining out in force, there’s a nice middle-class coziness about the Café, but not to the exclusion of the older mums and dads basking in the weak winter sun and people with paperwork taking a gentle approach to business as they eat. The gastro criminals at the next table were the exception.

The Subiaco Hotel Café is an icon. It is a modern and gracious architectural statement, which has softened over the years with the growth of creepers, manicured hedges and trees in the courtyard. Its food would easily stack up in a more formal, special occasion restaurant. The fact that such quality, skill and care can be found in a hotel café makes the experience even more exquisite.

Executive Chef Ivan Mather has managed to design a menu that is genuinely inventive, highly crafted and interesting, without banging one over the head with its cleverness. His food is clearly about what the customer wants, not what the chef wants to say about himself.

The Subiaco Hotel Café is one of my favourite restaurants, not just in Perth, but in Australia.

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