Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Elizabeth Restaurant at McWilliams, 20 Jan 2010

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 20, 2010

Oh dear, the Elizabeth Restaurant at McWilliams needs a jolly good sprucing up!

More than one friend had raised a quizzical eyebrow at our affection for this restaurant, but we had fond memories of a superb degustation there on our first trip to the Hunter ten years ago so we ignored them. But the nostalgia factor isn’t enough to save the Elizabeth, the sad fact is that it’s gone down-market and needs some serious money to be spent on it.

It deserves to be rescued. What we loved about it was the enchanting view across a paved courtyard with plantings, the friendly service and the opportunity to try seriously good wines matched perfectly to well cooked food. All these things are perfectly achievable, and for the sake of a proud old wine label, I hope they are.

At the moment the restaurant compares badly with its local competitors. The counters and display cabinet of desserts are tatty, the tables have seen better days and the tableware is scruffy. It’s not particularly clean, either – there were flies alive and dead on the window ledge and dust at the skirting boards. Conversation is impossible when they’re grinding coffee and when they’re not you’re privy to management discussions that should take place back of house. One waitress was grumpy, and the other one stayed chatting out the back with the chef instead of keeping an eye on customers.

On our first visit each diner had a special place mat, printed with circles across the top for the placement of each of five wine glasses with the wine’s name underneath, and the menu down the sides. A waiter provided information about each wine, which is helpful for novice and wine expert alike. There were whites to go with a light first course and reds to go with mains, finishing up with a dessert wine and a fortified to go with dessert and a cheese platter. It was, in other words, a degustation designed to show off the excellent wines that McWilliams makes at Mount Pleasant.

Now, for $48.50 you can choose either a red tasting platter or a white one, of 4 courses. Ok, it’s very reasonably priced, but it meant that we had to choose complementary plates in order to be able to try different wines. I think I came off best with the red platter, because although both the parmesan souffle and the polenta that went with the kangaroo saltimbocca were a bit stodgy, the red wine jelly with cheese was delicious and I got the best wines! The Mount Pleasant Classic Merlot was only ok, and the Phil Ryan Signature Series Shiraz was one of those undrinkable jammy things they make to attract the so-called female palate but the Mount Pleasant Old Hill and Old Paddock Shiraz & the Rosehill Shiraz were superb as always. Poor Tim, with a ‘twice-cooked pork belly dusted with Asian spices’ he had a Barwang Pinot Gris (why do winemakers persist with this boring flavourless grape??), and a disappointing Phil Ryan Signature Semillon to go with a somewhat ordinary ‘boxed’ crab and prawn salad. He didn’t like the rather grey gnocchi & mushrooms so I swapped that for my beef medallion and potato gratin – which didn’t really go with his Mount Pleasant Classic Chardonnay and I was a bit reluctant to part with my shiraz!

He did like the Maria Late Harvest Semillon to match his mango and blueberries with sorbet, and so we bought some next door in the tasting room, along with some Elizabeth semillons to cellar and a couple of Maurice O’Shea shiraz which is the best thing McWilliams make. They’re hard to get in Melbourne, but if you can get some young ones and be strong-minded enough to wait a few years, they are just divine with Christmas dinner.

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6 Responses to “Elizabeth Restaurant at McWilliams, 20 Jan 2010”

  1. Oh dear, it is always sad when a favourite restaurant loses its way isn’t it?

    BTW Wikipedia – that highly respected wine authority -says this about Pinot Gris: Pinot gris is considered an “early to market wine” that can be bottled and out on the market within 4–12 weeks after fermentation.

    Maybe THAT’s why winemakers persist with it. However, I have come around to the odd Pinot Gris though in general I find them a bit bland too. I’m not much of a Verdelho fan either, for much the same reason, but again you can find the odd nice one. The trick – which I’m not as good at these days as I used to be – is remembering the good ones when I have them…

    • Lisa Hill said

      Well, well, that 4-12 weeks sounds like the likely reason for their enthusiasm, and maybe that’s why the verdelho too? (Another dull grape).
      What I like about Australian wine marketing & labelling, compared to the incomprehensible French system, is that you know more or less what you’re getting. Regardless of brand I know that I will almost certainly like an aged semillon from the Hunter, a pinot noir from Tassie or the Mornington Peninsula, a Coonawarra shiraz or a sauvignon blanc from almost anywhere except NZ, and anything Penfold makes that costs over $20 and isn’t white. So having to remember that the only Pinot Gris or verdelho worth drinking is Brand X or Y is too much trouble!

      • Yes, as you will have seen in my comment I’m with you on Verdelho. Unfortunately though I had to give up Reds over 20 years ago as it was seriously affecting my eczema. I had to TEACH myself to enjoy whites as I drank very little white back then. But, you know, there is a wonderful Penfolds white, their Yattarna Chardonnay (it’s over $20 BUT it’s white!). I’ve only had it a couple of times but it is luscious. I have mixed feelings about Sauvignon Blancs – and often like them rounded out/toned down with some Semillon – but a straight one can be a lovely fresh summer drink. I used to drink a lot of Hunter Semillons, often older ones. Don’t tend to see them so much these days but I’ve been thinking of chasing them down a bit again.

      • Lisa Hill said

        They occasionally have museum releases of Hunter semillons, but since they’re not popular they can be hard to track down. That’s why we buy Elizabeths by the dozen and just shove them under the bed for about 10 years. They are so cheap and yet aged they are sumptuous wines – Halliday, I think, says they are an unsung bargain.

      • Cindy said

        I have dug up a 1999 Botrytis Semillon from Margan Winery (Hunter Valley). I’ve read somewhere that semillons are better young – is this bottle “too old” if there is such a thing???

        Thanks in advance!

      • Lisa Hill said

        Cindy, I am certainly not a wine expert just a happy amateur with adventurous tastes, but (assuming it hasn’t been left outside in the sun for 11 years and that the cork is still intact) I think your wine will still be ok. A botrytis is a sweet wine, for after dinner or with dessert and they usually last longer than ordinary table whites do.
        It’s true that most white table wines should be drink young. However, a semillon table wine can, depending on the brand, last for 10, 15 or 20 years. Price, alas, is no guide. It would be a sin to drink an inexpensive Elizabeth Semillon young (though it will certainly be delicious) because it if you put it under the bed or in a cupboard for ten years it will turn a gentle honey colour and have a gorgeous toasty flavour, an experience you can rarely have in restaurants because they don’t usually sell wines that are more than a few years old, and if they do they charge the earth for them.
        The best way to find out how long to keep a wine or if it’s still ok when you’ve had it for a while is to consult the winemaker’s tasting notes online, see http://www.margan.com.au/margan_wines_range_and_varieties.php#Botrytis. However as you can see in this case there’s no info about cellaring, so I would email the maker. This achieves two things, it gives you the info you need and it prompts the winemaker to include cellaring estimates in the tasting notes in future!
        Good luck, I hope it’s really nice:)
        Lisa

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