Sunday, 5 October 2014

Spicers Balfour - tranquility near the CBD

One of the finest dining experiences I'd had in a very long time was two hatted regional restaurant, the Long Apron (see post here).  It was my first real exposure to the Spicers Retreats, which have always had a reputation for excellence, both with romantic getaways and fine dining. I guess it makes sense that amazing restaurants would form part of a romantic weekend getaway.  I've normally associated the Spicers Group with regional locations, and have always been perplexed by the Spicers Retreat in trendy inner city suburb New Farm.  When the opportunity arose to get along and check out the Balfour Kitchen's new Pacific-Indo menu, it was a no brainer!

The Spicers Balfour Hotel is just a few minutes from the CBD in Balfour Street, which is on our regular walking path when we saddle up for our weekend walks.  Even though it is within easy walking distance from our apartment, we jumped in the car and made the trip through peak hour Brisbane traffic and found a park just around the corner by the Wilson's Lookout cliffs, which was already a world away from the busy Brisbane traffic.  As we walked around the corner and up to the retreat's front door, we could see that it was an oasis of quiet, right on the city's front doorstep.

The nearly hidden resort on Balfour Street is a huge converted Queenslander and passing the traditional brass plate announcing that we had arrived at a Spicers Retreat, we made our way up the stairs into another world.  We were greeted warmly by one of the many fabulous and well trained staff members, who showed us to our table on what was once the front deck of someone's home, but now a beautifully renovated outdoor dining area.  We were given a couple of menus and brief explanation of the menu, which had small plates for starters, which were specifically designed for sharing.  Looking over the menu, we could see the distinct influences of Indian cuisine.

I've never been a big fan of Indian cuisine, in fact, I generally go out of my way to avoid Indian, much to the chagrin of SC, who ranks Indian as one of her favourites. Head chef Peter Van Lun had put together a menu that reflected his love of India and his extensive travels through the sub continent and his time on the Silk Road. Thankfully, there were still enough influences on the menu from his classical French training, which provided an (Indo-Pacific) French-Indian fusion that I was sure I'd like.  Peter's background included time at James Street Bistro, Mondo Organics as well as time in top Paris restaurants La Societe and Spring.

With many share plate options to choose from, some with very obvious ties to the sub continent, we selected a few options that were probably a little more middle-of-the-road and definitely a lot safer (for me, anyway).  First to arrive were some fantastic looking Hervey Bay scallops with a spiced cauliflower puree, buttermilk cakes and fennel pepper pork crackling.  The two large and perfectly caramelised scallops sat atop the buttermilk cakes, which had the spiced puree dripping down the sides.  The fennel and pork crackling were sprinkled over the top with some of the crackling falling to the plate.  The sweet scallop was delicious and paired nicely with the buttermilk cakes, the subtle Indian spices from the puree provided a little bite, but was completely manageable for an Indian novice like myself.

There was a heap of heat in our next plate of poached chicken pancakes with pineapple, coriander, breansprouts and a peanut sauce.  The poached chicken was wrapped in ultra thin pancakes and were hidden underneath the accompanying salad, which was there to help cool down the dish from a very spicy peanut sauce.  It was a really well balanced dish, with contrasting sweetness from the chicken and pineapple against the backdrop of that spicy peanut sauce.  The poached chicken was moist and well seasoned - we really enjoyed the dish.

Perhaps the dish of the night was our next shared starter of glazed Kingaroy pork belly with green pea puree and an apple and fennel salad.  Two triangles of pork belly sat atop some crushed new peas but slightly hidden under the apple and fennel salad.  There were a lot of ingredients that traditionally matched very well here but crushed peas were not something I'd had with pork belly before.  What a revelation, the sweet peas were really in tune with the soft, moist and completely divine pork belly, which then paired beautifully with the apple and fennel salad.  Before we knew it, the pork was gone and we were left wanting more!

Our last starter looked quite messy in the bowl but it looked very much like a salad of scorched calamari with chilli basil, mesclun, cherry tomatoes and roast broad beans.  We couldn't really see the calamari at first glance, but after digging around we found and then devoured the expertly cooked treats.  I struggled a little bit with finishing off the full dish, there was quite a bit of a kick from the chilli and by the time we'd eaten the good bits, there was a lot of heat left in the bowl!

With a little heat still in our mouths from the starters, it was soon time for mains and SC had decided that on such a lovely night, the tiger prawn salad with mixed leaves, mango chilli, avocado and lime mousse was a must.  When it was delivered, we could see that the term salad was a bit of an understatement, it was a fully fledged main with a good number of large prawns sitting atop a fresh and wholesome looking salad.  The prawns were cooked really well, with a little bit of a char on them to give an extra sweet flavour and worked well with the cool of the avocado mousse and heat of the mango chilli.  The dish was well balanced and completely harmonious, the little bit of it that SC allowed me to eat was really fresh and very delicious.

I was a little stuck for a main, many of the options were just a little bit outside of my comfort zone but the one main that stood out was the black Angus beef tenderloin with crushed kipflers and a massaman style curry.  I wasn't sure what to expect but breathed a sigh of relief when the dish was presented, it looked amazing.  My beef was a perfect medium rare and was as tender a piece of beef as you're likely to find.  The massaman was admittedly a safe option for me, as I do quite enjoy Thai curries but I found the sweet sauce to match beautifully with the beef.  The potatoes were a bonus, they seemed to soak up the curry, with each potato bite exploding with flavour upon entering my mouth.  Yeah, I'd eat that one again.

The Spicers Balfour menu called deserts 'something sweet' but we learned that this was a little bit of a misnomer, with Peter's preference of using savoury options as well as sweet in his desserts. SC kicked off with the sheep milk pannacotta with cardamom caramel and mandarin sorbet. Usually when eating a pannacotta, you get an all so wonderful hit of sweetness, which was missing.  It created a huge juxtaposition from your normal expectations.  There was sweetness on the plate, in spades, from the cardamom caramel, and you needed to mix the ingredients to get the balance right.  It was an interesting dessert and if you're not into overly sweet desserts, then it would be the dish for you.

My dessert also had that mix of sweet and savour on the plate.  The white chocolate and pistachio brownie was incredibly sweet but was balanced out completely by the yoghurt parfait, which seemed to have little to no sugar in it at all.  I have to admit to liking quite sweet desserts and it took a while for me to get the balance right, but once I did, I very much enjoyed the dessert.  There was a little pistachio fairy floss on top of my dessert that was pretty sweet, but I made the mistake of eating it all at once before I kicked off.

Once we'd finished our meal, Peter came out to have a little bit of a chat to us about the new menu and his philosophies.  It seemed as if Peter's employers really love his background in Indian cooking and love the influences he brings to the menu.  He told us of a funny little story about on of his regular customers who always orders the wild barra in a vindaloo, but at the end of every meal, complains about the use of good quality fish in the dish...  Only to be back again to repeat the process.  Priceless.  It's reflective of the fact that Peter only uses the highest quality ingredients in his cooking and while a lesser quality fish could be hidden in a vindaloo, it's not the point.

I find it completely amazing that we have such tranquil restaurant and resort, right on our doorstep. The Spicers Retreat has about nine rooms, each a little different from the next, but all luxurious.  I keep thinking in the context of a city slicker wanting to get away from the 'big smoke' and head to a regional resort as the norm, but I guess the opposite is true as well, and what better way than a resort in the middle of a city.

After our meal, our extremely friendly waiter took us up to the rooftop bar, which had stunning views of the city and Story Bridge.  It seemed like just the spot to have a few drinks and unwind in a completely relaxing environment.  Even though the resort is so close to the city, it seems to be in a noise free zone, it was so quite compared to the constant noise we experience only a few kilometres away.

If you're looking for a relaxing spot but can't afford the time to get away, then fear not, you have a resort style restaurant and accommodation nearby - go check it out.

**We were invited guests for this meal

The pork belly was a standout dish on the night
The resort has an eclectic little entrance 
I wonder what surprises this holds?
The rooftop view - stunning...  And you can see our apartment!
The sitting area - those chairs looked comfy!
Chef hard at work in the kitchen!

Balfour Kitchen on UrbanspoonSpicers Balfour Kitchen

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