Opening up a new bar in a space that was previously unoccupied by a similar venture is generally a much easier proposition than assuming the mantle of a locally beloved venue. Clever Little Tailor, Udaberrie and the like have enjoyed deserved success in their restrained and sparse environments; carving out new spaces for the more discerning of Adelaide’s night-time quaffers that are seeking a comfortable and refined wining and dining experience that isn’t The Apothecary. These bars deserve their plaudits, but are unlikely to attract praise for doing anything frighteningly new.
A far more intimidating prospect is opening a new dining experience in a previously beloved local establishment, yet that is exactly the task awaiting Max Mason, business partner Tess Footner, and chef Shane Wilson.
Mason is the quintessential English gentleman, with one of the most fascinating histories I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. Formerly a naval officer, with time spent studying the sea floor in Antarctica, he has experience with dining experiences both abroad in London and locally, having run the popular Lola’s Pergola at the Fringe with local food icon Duncan Welgemoed.
Footner is extremely capable and charming in the role of maitre d’hotel, demonstrating her experience from running the service show at Welgemoed’s Bistro Dom and Africola, and also Penfold’s Magill Estate restaurant.
Rounding out this triumvirate of taste is head chef Shane Wilson, who spent time cutting his teeth at the aforementioned Bistro Dom and Barossa standout Hentley Farm. They’ve taken up residency in the former digs of The Chesser Cellars, a local lunch favourite that was run by retired icon Primo Caon, and renamed the venue after the building itself.
The trio, apparently not content with the already herculean trial of managing the diverse spaces of the large historic site, proposes an unorthodox menu format with the inspiration of yum-cha style dining as its foundation. Upon ordering from the constantly mercurial menu, small plates of impeccably assembled and presented fare arrive from Wilson and his team in the kitchen. These are either brought to the table or, if you’re an obsessive gourmand, you can cut out the middle-man and take a seat at the small bar located directly in front of the kitchen’s exit. It’s a neat idea, though one does wonder about the practicality of a narrow passage directly in the most trafficked area in the venue.
The Henry Austin team was incredibly generous in their treatment of a humble local reviewer, providing a diverse selection of the current menu and cellar to sample. The kingfish begins its overture with an immediately crunchy seared exterior, swiftly followed by the feather-light but rich interior, complemented expertly by the cloud-like cultured cream, pureed potatoes and pickled caper leaves, lending a balanced acerbic note. The garnish of dill leaves lends a seemingly characteristic visual flair while providing an aromatic highlight, with the cured egg shavings a pleasing and textural curiosity that may well have originated from Wilson’s time at Hentley. This was immaculately paired with a Bollinger Special Cuvee which, with its effervescent texture and superb fruit, is a natural partner for this dish; its presence the result of Mason’s personal mission to return the renowned label to the historic venue.
This was followed by a peerless marriage in the timeless coupling of seafood and citrus; rich marine umami from the voluminous Kinkawooka mussels with the lively zest of native fingerlimes, all steeped in a delicate buttermilk sauce. These delightful and aesthetically faultless morsels were accompanied by a dynamic and ambitiously blended white from the McLaren’s reclusive Between Five Bells, coloured rose gold and presenting pleasing palette notes of lime, hay and summer berries.
The service team, impressively overseen by Footner even on this chaotically busy Friday night, provided a uniquely-classical brand of hospitality that knit neatly with the heritage environment. My server, Jack, was enthusiastic and knowledgeable on The Henry Austin’s extremely well cultivated wine offerings, pairing the series of wines perfectly with the corresponding dish. The echelon and pedigree that the venue occupies might be cause for concerns that the service therein would be stilted and overstuffed, but this proved to be far from the case. The staff are friendly, while maintaining what is clearly a carefully-managed impression of that standard by which all service should be judged: that it is largely unobtrusive yet consistently on hand at the request of the patron.
The Henry Austin seeks to evoke the idea of the abode of the classically erudite English gentleman; host of high society dinners and with a cellar that is the envy of every socialite that loudly professes of their social connection. With a venue that is capable of catering to almost every breed of patron, unorthodox but overwhelmingly satisfying offerings from the kitchen, and a combination of surroundings and service that towers over any other emergent dining experience in Adelaide: The Henry Austin reveals itself as one of our most exciting new restaurant and bar experiences.
The determination of Mason, his partners and their team to realise such a comprehensively ambitious project is commendable, and it is the scale of their achievement that distinguishes them from the other novel bar ventures recently opened around our town. The reviewer very much looks forward to returning as a patron soon.