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Cauldron still casts spell

When I first came to Perth sixteen years ago, I was met at the plane by a journalist from the newsroom I had been brought west to edit. I wondered where I had arrived when, without preamble, my driver cheerfully suggested we motor directly to his flat for a joint before checking in at the hotel. I assumed this somewhat unusual welcome was a local greeting custom – the Western Australian equivalent of New Zealanders rubbing noses.

His second suggestion was more interesting. On determining that I was more a foodie than a druggie, he suggested that perhaps I should try the best garlic prawns in WA. These mythic prawns, he told me, were to be found at a restaurant curiously named The Witch’s Cauldron. I left him to his bong and struck out for Subiaco.

I remember enjoying those prawns a number of times over the summer of ‘83. In the ensuing sixteen years, the Witch’s Cauldron’s reputation as The Home of Garlic Prawns has survived untarnished, despite the fads and fashions of Australian cuisine which have come and gone outside its Rokeby Road doorway. In fact, in those sixteen years, the menu has remained virtually untouched.

It is now the only restaurant in Perth where one can order that great Australian mid-70s trifecta of prawn cocktail, pepper steak and pavlova (or cheesecake).

The Cauldron is a perfect time warp, right down to the lurid axminster on the floor and the leatherette dining chairs. By ignoring fashion, the Cauldron has carved itself icon status among WA restaurants.

Perhaps its survival strikes at the very heart of what makes diners happy when they go out to eat. If, as one suspects, prompt, attentive service, decipherable menus, value-for-money food cooked in a classical “Oooh, how posh dear” style and nice staff are what people keep coming back for, then the Cauldron's survival is no mystery at all. If you are unsure about big creamy sauces on steaks, overflowing iceberg lettuce salads and large wads of cheesecake, then perhaps this isn't the place for you.

And before you cuisine-literate, inner-urban foodoids sneer, one must be clear about one thing. Time-warped it may be, but the Witch’s Cauldron does what it does brilliantly. The raw materials are fine (especially the seafood and the gloriously aged steaks) and the cooking is of a high standard.

The prawn cocktail ($14.00) didn't come in a large martini glass lined with chopped iceberg lettuce as it did in the ’70s, but the combination of seafood sauce, cooked, peeled prawns and a crisp lettuce cup, none the less had me humming Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours as we ate. The sauce wasn’t a commercial variety from the catering pack (or if it was, it was particularly good). The prawns were large with just the slightest coating of the pinkish sauce and the lettuce cup was dewy fresh. The prawns were a little overcooked – one hopes the Cauldron cooks its own and doesn't buy them cooked from the fishmonger – but were lovely none the less.

The garlic prawns were as I had remembered them. They came to the table in one of those cast iron sizzler bowls, heated to high temperature in the oven to ensure that its contents arrive at the table spitting and sizzling and steaming and hissing with enough energy to turn the turbines at Muja #1. The oil is so hot, one can’t taste anything really, but the sensation of this physics lesson in a bowl is one of the highlights of a Witch’s Cauldron meal. Once it cools down, the flavours begin to present themselves and the elegant simplicity of this dish emerges. The best, however, is left to last. While one is eating one’s prawns, large chunks of chopped garlic are slowly caramelising in the bottom of the still fuming oil; so when at last the crustacea are all eaten, one scoops out forkful after forkful of golden garlic chunks.

A simple grilled dhufish in a lemon butter sauce ($24.00) was generous and well cooked. The sauce lacked the tangy, buttery foaminess that comes from being cooked from scratch in the same pan as the fish, but it was serviceable and plenteous. The dhufish was exceptional.

The fillet steak with bearnaise sauce ($25.50) was a serious ask for a piece of grilled steak, but the meat was as near perfectly aged and as tender as one can get anywhere in Perth. The steak was cooked with surgical precision, bloody inside and charred crisply outside. The bearnaise sauce was a sore disappointment. The balance of reduced vinegar, tarragon, egg yolks and butter are what make this classic emulsion sauce a miracle of sauce making. This version, however, was thick, gluggy, a peculiarly pallid yellow-grey colour and, worst of all, it was thickened with flour.

The crisp, tangy flavours that team so well with grilled steak were nowhere to be found.

The puds – pavlova ($8.00) and cheesecake ($8.00) – were a mixed bag. The cheesecake was brilliant; dense, rich and silky with the slightest sour aftertaste that can only come from good cream cheese. The biscuit base was rich with butter and good sweet crumbs.

The pav was a bought-in product: too sweet, overly processed and virtually tasteless. I left most of it on the plate.

The Witch’s Cauldron – despite the bearnaise and the pavlova – is still one of Perth’s most honest restaurants, cooking good old-fashioned nosh with skill and precision. It makes one feel nostalgic just being a part of the dining experience, and perhaps that's where its popularity also lies.

One small incident says it most elegantly. I had ordered a wine from the list which wasn't what I had expected. In an era of crisper, drier rieslings my choice (I had never heard of the wine before, but will try anything once) was a sweet reminder of the Ben Ean days.

The choice, though, was mine and the outcome was certainly not the fault of the restaurant. Yet when I explained why I was ordering another wine while the riesling was virtually untouched, the waiter without hesitation proclaimed that it would be replaced free of charge, even after I made it clear I was happy to pay for my mistake.

So, while the food may be redolent of the ’70s so, too, is the service and the desire to make the customer happy at all costs – a level of concern and generosity which is so rare these days it should be world-heritage listed before it disappears altogether.

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