It’s July and Hobart’s weather has just got serious. The Bridgewater Jerry is suspended over the Derwent River outside the township of New Norfolk. It might not be going anywhere but we have arrived.
We are here for a lazy Saturday lunch at the Agrarian Kitchen’s Eatery and Store which opened the week earlier at the Willow Court site.
The history of Willow Court goes back to the 1830s as a hospital for invalid convicts. In contemporary memory, it’s known as the Royal Derwent Hospital, where people with mental illness and disabilities were institutionalised until it was closed in 2000. You don’t have to scratch far below the surface to find a story from the site. Former nursing staff live in town, families of patients are only a few degrees of separation away and former patients now live independently in suburban supported housing.
The drive into Willow Court is still marked by eerie reminders that the site has some tough memories to reconcile; ruin, graffiti and broken windows. We take it all in as we pull up to the top of The Avenue to the Bronte Building.
Behind the neat fencing lies manicured lawns and the circa 1920 building returned to its former glory. There are garden beds around the perimeter with chillies, kale and spinach. Built as a sick ward, Bronte has the hallmarks of a sanatorium. The healing power of nature, fresh air and light, is welcomed with windows designed to enjoy the sun and the building’s massive ceilings.
Inside, the original pressed tin is untouched, the floor boards are polished within an inch of their lives and from the entry to the end of the Eatery runs a central table parallel to the bar. A number of smaller tables sit along the wall and there is private space for couples at the restaurant’s finish. At the opposite end of the Eatery is the Store. All the things that matter are there – Agrarian kitchen cook books, copper gardening tools and kitchen utensils including individually crafted pieces by local ceramist, Lee Farrell. Her ceramics also hang over the bar as light fittings to complement giant antlers that provide light to the vast space. The meals are served off her bespoke plates.
We’re met by restaurant manager, Katrina Birchmeier, at the door. Birchmeier’s presence is immediately reassuring. A Tasmanian veteran, collaborating at the former Grandvewe Cheese restaurant at Birchs Bay and Garagistes. She’s a calming influence, keeping an eye on progress and ensuring we’re travelling well.
We’re not the first through the doors at 11am but it’s close and it’s too soon to take off our coats.
It’s hard to go past the menu’s first page of aperitif cocktails and a drink before noon with a special lunch. Birchmeier looks on approvingly. This Girl chooses the Mandarins. Like I said to The Other Girl, mandarin is very ‘in’ right now. The cocktail is shaken with local Poltergeist gin, bone dry sherry, lemon and orange bitters ($18). It has just the right balance of citrus, sweetness and alcohol. I imagine I’m consuming fruit with benefits. The Other Girl, who is generally better behaved at the best of times, chooses Zero Alcohol, Big Flavour, and it is. Vanilla bean roasted apple reduction is topped with ginger beer for $10.
Drinks in hand, we’re keen to go play in the menu. Lunch is a la carte. It’s seasonal and local, changing regularly. Here the adage ‘there’s something for everyone’ is true. With a little advice from our charming table attendant on quantities and richness we elect the following:
- fried sourdough potato cakes with spicy ketchup, $8 (3 pieces)
- sausage rolls and summer’s relish, $12 (4 pieces)
- our curd with new season olive oil and smoked mackerel, $12
- braised pork with pumpkin seed sauce and lard bread, $33
- pumpkin donuts with whisky sauce, $14 (3 pieces) and
- to takeaway a lamington with our jam, $6, roasted quince tarte tatin, $9, and a salted chocolate biscuit, $4.5
There are many stand outs in this experience. The potato cakes are light, delicately fried and deliciously crisp. There’s no artery-hardening side-effects, well at least on the surface. The Other Girl whose motto was ‘Give me a dim sim any day’ turned a new leaf. They were perfect. The handmade pastry of the sausage rolls was rustic and robust, standing shoulder to shoulder with the course hand-minced meat contained within. Again, some of the best we’ve ever eaten. We found ourselves with a big bowl of curd dressed in flaked dried fish and broad bean shoots. This was the most subtle of the dishes which we enjoyed with additional sourdough we ordered to go with.
The meal with the biggest attitude was the pork and lard bread. This was an intensely flavoured dish of melt in the mouth pork and meat oils. The grainy texture of the pumpkin seed sauce was not dissimilar to a Mexican mole and in deference to the style, it was topped with a piece of chicharron, or as we like to call it south, of south of the border, fried pork rind. This was a delicious and luxurious meal and best shared. Go easy on the entrees, we sent half the dish back to the kitchen.
Against all odds, we managed to squeeze a serve of donuts in between us. Cut these fluffy pillows in half to expose their orange inners and let them soak up the whisky sauce. They were delightful.
The salted chocolate biscuit got pick of the takeaways. This Girl’s choice of tarte tartin and lamington consumed later that evening didn’t hold a candle to the fine experience at lunch. Perhaps somethings are enjoyed as they’re meat to be, in the moment.
To say we were impressed by our experience at the Agrarian Kitchen’s Eatery and Store would be an understatement. Make a reservation and make the trip. This is an experience meant for sharing with time to enjoy yourself, the wonderful food and the beautiful space.
Find out more on their webpage – The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery and Store.