On a hot, windy summer’s Saturday my dad and I went for a lunch date to a (I believe) recent entry in the Age Good Food Guide – The Meeting Pool. It’s literally walking distance from my mum’s house, and, besides visiting Montsalvat many a time growing up (including giving a brief harpsichord recital in the gallery above the Great Hall; being chased around the place by peacocks; and visiting a violin-maker friend of my (quite musical) uncle Andrew) I’d also been there before for a pre-wedding rehearsal dinner. I enjoyed it then, but at the time I obviously didn’t take any photos or pay a great deal of attention to the food (and I can’t even remember what I ate, being 18 months ago!), and this time around I wanted to really concentrate on the food rather than the socialising.
The brick building, backing onto an art gallery (Montsalvat being an artists’ colony), was pleasantly cool on such a warm day; and, owing to its limited capacity, service was rapid and friendly. There is also a courtyard outside, but the day was too hot and blustery for more than two brave souls to sit out there. The restaurant is named after a childrens’ book one of the co-founders of Montsalvat, Mervyn Skipper, wrote. The book is now out of print, but drawings from the book adorn the walls, and you can buy copies through the gift shop. His grandson is still affiliated with the colony, and Mervyn’s son Matcham (I presume he’s still alive!) lives down the road from my mum (and my childhood home). His yard, guarded by an imposing gateway, is filled with all sorts of building junk from Montsalvat and other homes in the area, and is a little slice of Eltham history. My brother and I would sneak in and explore the yard on our adventures down the creek in summer.
The specials of the day (from memory) included a pumpkin soup with coriander; a sweet potato gnocchi with basil; and a flourless chocolate cake with berry coulis. All of those sounded incredibly appealing, but I’d already planned my line of attack by viewing their menu online and committed to the duck salad ($22) followed by a dessert (the jury was still out at this stage as to which dessert that would be). Duck may not be especially low-fat, but it was one of the better options. Particularly when you are simultaneously trying to lose several kilograms of stress-eating and holiday weight, and also planning on eating dessert. Which, believe it or not, can be done. True story!
I was given around 150-200g of duck (i.e. the amount of meat one is supposed to eat in a sitting). It is described in the menu as “Confit du canard en salade – warm duck salad with shallots and walnut dressing”. I have to say, I don’t think what I got particularly resembled what was written on the menu – it was duck salad, alright, but to uncultured me, shallots are spring onions so I was momentarily confused when I realised that they actually meant those tiny French onions, which were cooked to perfection and sat atop the duck. I'm still not quite convinced it involved a walnut dressing, though. Perhaps it was a small, seasonal change to the menu, or was perhaps related to the availability of ingredients, or maybe someone just put the wrong dressing on my salad; but it was essentially duck served on a bed of salad greens in a regular soup/salad-sized bowl (not crazy-large, not old-fashioned small), the shallots, a couple of grape cherry tomatoes, and a dressing that was light in texture but heavy on the balsamic flavour.
I thought I detected the slightest hint of the bitterness of walnut in the dressing, which may or may not have been the power of suggestion. Certainly there were no walnut pieces to be seen, not that the menu suggested that there would be. But by the time I came to wipe the last pieces of duck around the dressing in the bowl I was slightly more convinced that there was walnut lurking, somewhere – there was a certain creamy, nutty richness to the dressing that went beyond the sharp, cutting flavour of the balsamic. But it might have been a good-quality olive oil that I could taste, too.
Two of the three pieces of duck were cooked to perfection – succulent and tender, the (relatively scant) skin melted in my mouth, and the meat was pleasing both with and without the skin. It is difficult to describe the flavour of the meat, except to say that it had the sweetness of duck meat and a spice somewhat reminiscent of Chinese Five Spice (very possibly the chef would be offended to hear that!). The third piece of duck was lacking skin and also moisture, and, never having actually cooked duck myself, I will go out on a limb and presume that the two are related. But it wasn’t dry enough to be upsetting, and I was happy enough mopping the flavoursome meat around my plate to absorb the moisture from the scant remains of the dressing - nice that it wasn't drowning in dressing, too. The salad itself was a bit pedestrian, but let’s face it, I was in it for the duck. You don’t win friends with salad!
My dad opted for the Wagu rump steak open sandwich on grilled sourdough ($25), which was served with a smear of beetroot relish (or perhaps it was some sort of grated beetroot – I didn’t taste that part myself) cushioning the medium-rare steak; crowned with a spoonful of pleasantly sweet, caramelised onions; and accompanied by a heaping pile of perfectly-cooked, golden French fries. Nobody needs that much potato in their life, but the good news is that it meant I could sneak some off dad’s plate without him objecting too loudly! So much for shifting that holiday weight…
Dad was good enough to give me a small sliver of meat, and it was tender enough, but I’m a medium-rare girl and the edges of the steak – which I was given – were distinctly medium. I’m also the wrong person to ask about the quality of the meat because, whilst it sported the gentle richness one expects from a Wagu steak, I’m just as happy with a cheap porterhouse smothered with pepper sauce down the pub, and prefer the fat to be down the side of my steak and not marbled throughout. I know, I know, chefs everywhere are lining up to slap me, but I prefer the meatier flavour over the fattier one.
After our plates were cleared the waiter asked whether I would like to see the dessert menu, to which I responded with a resounding “Hell, yeah!” He handed me the menu and I was trying to decide between the flourless chocolate cake special ($12.50) and the lemon sabayon tart ($15), when the waiter threw a spanner in the works and told me his favourite was the House-made Neapolitan ice cream-filled profiteroles with hot chocolate sauce ($16). During my recent overseas holiday I learnt to ask the waiter what he or she recommended as I found myself ordering the same old familiar things, so I went with the profiteroles and I was not disappointed.
Three profiteroles, stuffed with what I took to be house-made ice cream, smothered in a hot chocolate sauce, were served with a blob of whipped cream and a sliced strawberry splayed across the top. The chocolate ice cream was incredibly rich and quite dark; the strawberry ice cream was tart, with small pieces of the strawberry fruit to be seen in it; and the vanilla ice cream was relatively mild – you could see little pieces of vanilla bean, but the flavour was more creamy than vanilla. Mind you, I do a lot of baking, and I’ve been known to lick the spoon after I scoop vanilla bean paste out of the tub or measure out pure vanilla extract, so I’m probably not the best judge of whether vanilla is too mild or not. The profiteroles were a little hard, which is to be expected when they have to sit in the freezer filled with ice cream, but thawed out well enough under the heat of the chocolate sauce. A word of warning, though – use your spoon to steady your profiterole while you imbed your fork, then use your fork to steady it while you cut with your spoon, otherwise I suspect the profiterole will go flying!
All in all, I will definitely be making a repeat visit. Not only am I blessed to have this gem more or less in my back yard, but it combines a relaxed atmosphere with good-quality food which are two of my favourite things. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest it for those on a tight budget, unless you are the sort of person who can contain themselves to eating just one course (I’m afraid I’m not someone that can do that!), but the more limited lunch time menu is more affordable than the dinner one so it is still possible to treat yourself.