Must bistro and wine bar has got a captive audience at Margaret River. The town hosts two large, boisterous pubs, several providores, a couple of restaurants and cafes, and a fudge factory on the main drag, but little to write home about when it comes to small, stylish dining options with a boutique bistro feel.
The local movers and groovers must have popped Champagne corks when Must Margaret River filled the void in the West Australian wine region two years ago.
Must is the sibling of the decade-old hotspot of the same name but even bigger fame in Highgate, Perth, and it has certainly cornered the market – there’s nothing else this suave and sophisticated within spitting distance of Margaret River’s swanky wineries.
A good sign
I felt I had been given a second chance when I saw the trademark Must signage as we drove through town on route to our rented weekender. I’d heard about the Highgate hotspot’s cult status, but hadn’t managed to get there during my Perth pit-stop just days earlier.
We headed straight for Must when the cellar doors called ‘time’ at 5pm and relaxed in the bar, sipping Devil’s Lair 2009 Chardonnay and browsing food and wine magazines, until it started to fill.
Above the wine bar and bistro there are six spacious suites, four with ensuites and spa baths, for those who don’t want to stumble too far home.
Downstairs, wine is the central theme. Large wine racks divide the bar from the restaurant and clusters of empty bottles are suspended from the ceiling masquerading as lights. It’s stylishly moody and utterly unique. You can order a 75ml ‘taste’ of wine that is half the price of a glass.
Delivering the goods
Must chef-cum-restaurateur Russell Blaikie oversees the menu development, but head chef Chris Cheong delivers the goods at the Margaret River venue.
Local produce is the star attraction: dry aged beef from the foot of the Stirling Ranges is hung for about 30 days in the on-site refrigerated meat aging ‘cellar’, fish is sourced from Augusta’s Blackwood River, and old English Tamworth cross-bred pigs that range freely through eucalypt forest are fattened on a property south of Witchcliffe. Blaikie knows the provenance of each delivery, and his producers – or ‘food heroes’ – by first name.
Call it tapas, call it bar snacks, call it bites, call it what you like – but I love small plates of food that can easily be shared. After a day wine tasting and a sizable lunch at Leeuwin Estate, we were in need of a food fix of bite-sized proportions. Must’s bar menu more than sufficed. Hungrier customers can dine a la carte.
Six plump Augusta oysters were served natural with a shallot and Champagne vinaigrette on the side. We drizzled minute drops and a tiny dash of lemon juice, preferring to savour their nudity as much as possible. These sweet and briny babies – sourced from Oyster Harbour in Albany which hosts the only commercial oyster farm in Western Australia – were buttery in texture, slightly nutty in flavour, and meaty in size.
Pork hock and queso manchego croquettas – half a dozen, the size of ping-pong balls – were creamy, crunchy and cheesy in all the right proportions. This is our kind of comfort food. We could have eaten a bowl of them like popcorn.
A trio of chargrilled Moorish spiced aged butterflied beef skewers, drizzled with lemon juice, were sublime. Each skewer yielded three good-sized chunks of rump cap – a tender cap of muscle taken from the trimmings. This was good beef, cooked superbly, after soaking up a marinade of sweet and smoked paprikas, cumin, cayenne, garlic, parsley and sherry.
As the evening matured the bar staff muddled like mad to satisfy the cocktail crowd. The restaurant filled up with a wedding party and all the bar stools were occupied. It was standing room only and we fought for a place at the bar to settle our bill.
The benefit of being kept waiting, and denied the expected table service, was catching a glance of Must Eat – Blaikie’s newly released cookbook (see The Food Sage book review). Had our bill been brought to the table we could have missed out on this additional culinary delight. We grabbed a copy, paid our bill, and navigated our way back to our weekender.
Next time we’ll book a suite and save our appetite for Must’s bistro menu. There are rumps and rib-eyes suitable for two to share – sounds like a must, to me.
Readers may also like:
Must Eat, by Russell Blaikie.