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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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  1. Crumpets and caviar
    Photograph: Dom Cherry
  2. Mushrooms on a bronze platter
    Photograph: Dom Cherry
  3. Pasta in a bowl
    Photograph: Dom Cherry

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Experience the very best the Hunter Valley has to offer over six exquisite courses

A trip to a Hunter Valley restaurant most often involves placing rolling hills, climbing grape vines, and breathtaking sunsets front and centre. Throw in some local plonk and a few familiar but still tasty plates and you can safely bank that even an overcooked scotch fillet or slightly mushy fish can be forgiven with just a glance at those vineyards and hopping kangaroos.

This is not the case at EXP. in Pokolbin village. It is immediately clear from casting an eye over the parchment paper menu that you are in wine country; Usher Tinkler prosecco, Brokenwood semillon and Vinden Estate shiraz nouveau jump out as nearby neighbours, and the eats take a similar tack. Binnie beef comes from a short drive up the road at Mirannie Station and Mother fungus comes from a quick hop to Taree. But aside from the menu – and local talent – there is nothing to hint that you're in the Hunter. Instead of floor-to-ceiling glass walls to take in the views, EXP. has charcoal painted walls and worn wooden tables. In lieu of the roos and a vineyard across which to gaze, the space is comparably tiny; two and four top tables dotted around the muted room, dim lighting, and a sleek granite benchtop overlooking the open kitchen.

In that open kitchen you'll find owner/chef Frank Fawkner, with perhaps one other chef moving seamlessly between adjustable flame grills. A local ingredient himself, Fawkner hails from the Hunter and moved back here after a stint working and training with Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens in London. He opened EXP. with his wife and business partner Emma at Oakvale Wines back in 2015 before relocating to the village of Pokolbin in 2020. 

If you can grab one, take a seat at the bar. The cushy backed chairs alay any concerns you may have about sore spines and numb backsides so you can focus your full attention on the six courses handed to you across upward of 12 dishes. A trio of snacks set the scene; gougères of pyengana cheddar and caramelised onion; Yarra Valley caviar, Jerusalem artichoke and sour cream piped into wafer-thin pastry shells; and sweet roasted pumpkin tarts with pepitas. 

Friendly and professional staff set for each course where you'll greedily snap up the signature Mareema duck breast ham with pillowy soft sourdough toast, a smear of macadamia butter concealed under the thin slices of meat. The salty-sweet-sour combination means this entrée has been a staple that surpasses seasonal changes.

A veil of minced and pressed kangaroo carpaccio seasoned with saltbush and fermented black garlic comes and goes in one memorable bite. Seriously, this is the kind of dish that will have you planning your next visit before you've finished it and eyeing your neighbour's plate for scraps. There won't be any.

Things get a bit theatrical when a sword-like skewer of meaty mushrooms arrives in a cloud of rosemary smoke. The umami-packed dressing of garum, a salty fermented fish sauce, in tandem with creamy egg yolk creates an incredible depth of flavour that lingers on your palate long after the last, inelegant bite. The slightly awkward size of the mushrooms on such a hefty bronze skewer could make for a messy mouthful but there's something disarming about having to play with your food in such a dignified setting. Take this opportunity to relax; yes, it's fine dining, but what fun is going to a restaurant if you feel you must whisper like you're in church? We suspect this chef-to-diner interaction is meant to be convivial and Fawkner and his crew are all too happy to chat.

It's all too easy to poke fun at a dining experience when the tweezers come out, or the sauce is saved as a tableside flourish, but EXP. doesn't feel fussy. Rather it's an example of how the tightly-run ship executes familiar flavours with precision and nowhere is this more clear than with the denouement of the meal: dessert. A Christmassy apple tart spiked with native cranberries (muntries) is plated before your very eyes with pixie-sized pans of butterscotch sauce and astonishingly uniform quenelles of evaporated milk ice cream. A little fiddly but such a comforting way to finish an extraordinary meal. 

Restaurants like EXP. are cropping up all throughout the Hunter Valley and have carved out a new wave of dining. A wave focused uncompromisingly on quality, warmth and a locavore mindset. After all, with all of this abundance, from wine to lovingly tended vegetables and sustainably raised livestock, why would they look anywhere else? 

Written by
Elizabeth McDonald


2188 Broke Road
Opening hours:
Fri-Mon, 5-9pm
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