It’s tough to find the right words to use to describe Karena Armstrong. Yes, she’s a chef, but she’s so much more than just that. Her email signature reads ‘Creative Director of Indulgence’. That seems fitting for someone who might also be able to claim titles such as sustainability champion, ethical cook, dedicated teacher and educator, regional ambassador, and advocate for kitchen and workplace equality. But, as I’ve stated before, I see Armstrong as a culinary artist who spins an edible story, and to top this all off, she’s a bloody nice person.
It’s no wonder that she is in her second year as co-festival director for Tasting Australia. They could have wheeled in some high-profile interstate personality for the job, but there’s no point when we have the perfect person right here in our very backyard. Appropriately, it’s in her own backyard that Armstrong starts each day, harvesting crops in her kitchen garden that will arrive on the tables of the Salopian Inn that afternoon.
Your bread, or first course of small delights, will arrive with a printed map of this garden beneath, hand drawn and updated as the seasons change, and from this page you’ll see all the fresh produce that has been weaved through the dishes that follow. Talk about paddock to plate.
The perfect storm, followed by plenty of sun means that Zucchini flowers are up first. This cheese-stuffed appetizer isn’t on the menu, but is a gift from the kitchen (and from nature). It’s fried in a light tempura batter, then laid across a pool of green salsa, that resembles chimichurri but obviously contains many more herbs than just parsley. It’s simple, nicely seasoned, and well-balanced. Just how every good meal should start.
And then it’s ocean to plate, and what a beauty this hiramasa kingfish sashimi is. Six uniform pieces are splayed across the plate, swimming in a translucent and powerful citrus vinaigrette that offers just a hint of smoke, droplets of herb-infused oil evade emulsion but contribute plenty of taste, and two generous squirts of a miso and sesame concoction add some solid saucy texture and a decent whack of umami flavour. Edible flower petals and a little pickled cucumber and fresh radish finish the plate and complete the package.
Speaking of packages, if there’s one thing that Armstrong is known for (aside from the descriptions above) it’s her dumplings. People travel from far and wide for these tasty, ever-evolving morsels. The first and most important part of any good dumpling is the wrapper, or skin. Often kitchens might skip the fussy dough part but not here: each is carefully rolled so that the dumplings are meticulously formed and identical, right down to the number of folds at the seam. When steamed there’s a translucent quality to them – the sign of a quality dumpling. Today’s contain a fairly typical filling, with pork and ginger, roasted chilli and coriander, but somehow, they are filled with so much flavour. The chilli-infused broth in the plate elevates these further. They are, quite simply, the best.
You know those pork buns you get at every Chinese restaurant or buy from the freezer section to steam at home? You’ll almost always be disappointed with the filling, which usually ranges from gacky to grisly and chewy. Well, forget them. Again, it’s obvious that the Salopian’s dough recipe has been tested and trialled to pillowy perfection; the filling is made using diced pork from The Dairyman, resulting in a filling that is tender and delicious, and piping hot. The Salopian’s chilli sauce served alongside is also hot. Use it sparingly, but make sure you use it. The combination will set your tastebuds alight (or perhaps on fire, if you go in for a more adventurous dunk).
Chilli has also been used generously in the next dish, but this time in a rich caramel with a sweetness that mutes some of the heat. It coats master stock braised kangaroo tail, prepared and presented osso buco style. Sichuan pepper adds a different element of heat and there’s freshness from pickled daikon, green leaves and herbs scattered on top. The meat segments are crispy on the outside thanks to the caramelisation from the sauce, with an utterly tender interior. This dish is another absolute winner in my books: it’s no wonder it’s been on the menu for years. Kangaroo is one of those ingredients that, despite being our most sustainable meat option, is still controversial for some, but if there was a dish to get you on board, this is it.
So here we are, two of us stuffed with all kinds of delicious dishes. And all of this from the ‘small delights’ menu, where nothing is over $23. Based on quantity alone I’d expect to pay more, but on quality, double, at least.
Quite like its owner and chef, this regional restaurant doesn’t just punch above the weight of others, it sets the bar high. And, by the way, there’s another high bar here too, and it’s filled with more than 200 gins.
5 McMurtrie Road, McLaren Vale
Friday & Saturday 12-11:30pm
(08) 8323 8769
Your support will help us continue the important work of InReview in publishing free professional journalism that celebrates, interrogates and amplifies arts and culture in South Australia.