Saturday, November 21, 2009

Restaurant review: The Station Hotel, Footscray

Gentrification and renovation has swept much of the previously overlooked inner-western suburbs over the past few years, with many a fine old Edwardian or Federation house with lovely bones finding itself modernised. Along with the influx of artistes and yummy mummies has come a passion for good coffee and decent cafes, which has been largely catered for in Yarraville and Seddon.

Now Footscray has joined the throng, with the stately old Station Hotel, built in 1864, being brought into the modern era by highly regarded chef Sean Donovan. Footscray has long been the place to go for Asian and African food but diners west of the CBD now have a more upmarket option.

Donovan, who has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in both London and France and formerly weaved his magic south of the river at The Botanical, has waved his wand over the Station Hotel and turned it into the area’s first gastro-pub. While the surrounding area may seem less amenable to fine dining than South Yarra, London or France, his chef’s eye for detail and use of excellent produce has transformed the pub into a thriving local where it’s difficult to snare a table if you don’t book ahead.

The focus here is firmly on the food. The dining room interior is pleasantly neutral, with one wall papered in a subtle grey paisley pattern. The wooden tables, adorned with cloth napkins and heavy cutlery, are positioned quite closely together, although the noise levels never rise unacceptably and it’s possible to conduct a conversation without shouting.

When the Station first reopened, diners ordered and paid at the bar but this has been sensibly replaced by table service. The waitstaff are friendly and helpful, eager to answer any questions about the menu and not shy about complimenting patrons on their dining choices.

While the menu does reflect Donovan’s training, there are still some traditional pub favourites, albeit with a cheffy twist, such as beer-battered fish and chips or a burger with onion fries. There is a choice of eight different steaks, either Black Angus or wagyu, grain or grass-fed. Then there are the gastro-pub offerings: blinis, farro risotto and terrine de campagne. There is also evident pride in the produce used, with names such as Fratelli Galloni Prosciutto di Parma, Coffin Bay scallops, Smoky Bay oysters and the provenance of each steak detailed on the menu.

Seafood makes up the bulk of the short entree list. Marinated ocean trout is folded delicately atop four pancake-sized buckwheat blinis. The blinis are crispy and a little oily but saved by the accompanying sauces, one zinging with piquant horseradish and the other full of little salmon roe that pop sensuously in the mouth.

The Cashel blue cheese and leek tart is an upmarket, but well made, quiche. The pastry holds the firm eggy filling without sogginess but still has a flaky lightness to it. The blue cheese adds a subtle bite and the tart’s richness is offset by a salad of radicchio and thinly sliced apple.

The relative simplicity of the entrees disappears with the more elaborate mains. On paper, the spicy wagyu beef sausages with Gorgonzola, soft polenta, candied walnuts and sage – essentially a glamorous bangers and mash – sounds messy and complicated, with too many ingredients competing for attention. But there is a harmony in the dish, with the different flavours complementing each other and the smoky sweetness of the candied walnuts adding an extra sizzle of flavour. The waitress rated the sausages as “7 out of 10” in the heat stakes but our palates clearly differ, as I found the sausages to have nothing more than a pleasing warmth to them. They are coiled on a pillow of soft and creamy polenta, flecked with herbs and Gorgonzola. Radicchio and shaved parmesan add some lightness to the pure comfort food element of the dish.

Just as detailed on paper is the black pudding dish, which features Donovan’s gelatinous, slightly spicy black pudding. When the crispy, pan-fried skin is cut, the black pudding spills out over its accompaniments of caramelised onion, a brie and duck egg omelette and a mound of lentils and bacon. A slice of walnut and fruit toast adds a firm-textured dimension. Despite the many ingredients, this dish works, and the interesting juxtaposition of sweet and sour tastes makes it memorable. Black pudding is not to everyone’s taste, but if you are a fan, this is an excellent version.

The serves here are generous and desserts are no exception. A hot Valrhona chocolate cake, about the size of an entree plate, has surprise packages of poached quince pieces hidden inside. The fruit, and the bitter notes of good-quality dark chocolate, save the cake from being cloying or overly sweet, and it is finished off with a scoop of Jock’s vanilla ice-cream. The Station’s version of ubiquitous sticky date pudding is excellent: a large wedge of pudding is studded with walnuts and doused with a thick butterscotch sauce.

The Station Hotel has been embraced by locals and it’s easy to see why. While simple dishes are executed well and will not scare off those who are after a pub meal, there is enough innovation, passion and pride in the food here to attract those who want something a little more adventurous.

The Station Hotel
59 Napier St, Footscray
(03) 9687 2913

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