Sometimes the storm clouds of misfortune have a silver lining. On the way to Pemberton from Margaret River the airflow sensor in our car failed, leading to our car being towed to Augusta, another three days in Margaret River and delaying the Pemberton leg of our journey. At the time, stuck out in the searing hot sun, worried that we'd lose our deposit for our accommodation at Karri Valley Resort and then having to pay for unexpected repairs, it felt like a pretty hopeless situation. However, with a very understanding Karri Valley changing our booking, Alissa and I found ourselves in Pemberton on a Thursday and Friday night instead of the planned Monday and Tuesday. As luck would have it, the change of days meant our trip to Pemberton lined up with a dinner at Foragers, a unique cooking school, farm, restaurant and accommodation hybrid run by chef and food writer Sophie Zalokar and her husband Chris.
I'd heard about Foragers while planning our trip, and had seen Zalokar's excellent book 'Food of the Southern Forests' at a number of bookstores in Perth. However, as their restaurant is only open on Saturdays (with additional Friday dinners during school holidays), I was resigned to the fact it would not be on our itinerary. As soon as I realised our good timing and found their contact details, I made a reservation for the Friday night.
Alissa and I were the first to arrive right on time for dinner service, allowing us an opportunity to take in the Foragers dining room while we waited for the other diners to arrive. Dubbed the Field Kitchen, the dining room is a warm and welcoming space, with two separate kitchens and a long table-focused layout. For someone who does not really enjoying dinners with a large group of friends (its not really conducive to good conversation), I actually really enjoy long table dinners - the casual vibe and convivial atmosphere tend to make for an enjoyable dining experience, and this was no different. We were sat next to two sisters from Perth, and had a good chat with them throughout the night.
The usual Saturday menu at Foragers is a four-course BYO Seasonal Dinner, and based on photos online looks to be a slightly more formal affair based around seasonal produce, without being fine dining per se. The Friday Wood Fired Dinners (also BYO) are served in three shared courses and focus on a more farmhouse, rustic country style of cooking. With the menu written on the blackboard in front of us, Alissa and I were filled with even more excitement when we saw what was in store, and the fact the venue was BYO was very welcome considering the boxes of wine we'd picked up on our journey.
The first course was an Antipasti cold plate of Smoked Ocean Trout, Baba Ganoush with Cumin and Nigella, Pickled Beetroot with Spiced Walnuts, Zucchini Bread and Butter Pickles, Roasted Baby Carrots and Radishes with Caraway, Baked Ricotta with Pesto, Manzanilla Olives, Smoked Paprika-Roasted Tomatoes, and Wood-fired Flatbread. Regular readers will know this kind of 'choose your own combo' tasting plate is right up Alissa's alley, and I have to admit that this was up there with the very best we've had. The Baba Ganoush was really well made, with a smokiness and well balanced seasoning accompanied by an impressively smooth texture. The Smoked Trout was hot smoked, but rather than the dry, unpalatable texture of fish that is badly hot smoked, the Trout here had obviously been cooked fairly gently as it still had a juicy texture. The best element on the plate was without a doubt the Baked Ricotta with Pesto; the slightly crumbly texture of the ricotta and the flavour of the green pesto spooned on top was so delicious I saved it for my last mouthful. Everything else on the plate was uniformly excellent - even simple things like the olives had a juiciness that suggested they too were made in house, and if they weren't they were definitely well sourced.
The flat bread that accompanied the Antipasti was well baked, with a good, distinctive crustiness that comes from a wood-fired oven. These served as a perfect vehicle for many of the components on the tasting plate.
With the sun setting and the tables cleared, Chris brought out the dishes that would serves as our mains. First to arrive, the Foragers Sourdough was really impressive. Wood-fired just before service, the still warm bread was simply superb, being perfectly soft but crusty sourdough. In its style, it was as good or better than many fine dining restaurants we have eaten at. Give how evenly the bread had been baked, Alissa and I were definitely impressed with Sophie's keen knowledge and skill working the oven.
The star of the mains was the Smoke & Spice Pulled Pork, Pink Lady Apple Jam and Crispy Shallots. Not necessarily smoky in the American Barbecue sense of the word, the pork had nevertheless been caressed by smoke, and had a delicious spiciness dominated by cumin, cinnamon and possibly paprika. The meat was super moist, juicy and fall apart, and was probably the best Pulled Pork we've had in terms of texture and how perfectly seasoned it was. The Pink Lady Apple Jam served on the side (not pictured) worked perfectly for the classic apple and pork combo, and the use of Pink Lady's natural acidity and sweetness served as a strong case for why the Pink Lady works as a good, sweeter substitute to Granny Smiths.
Less intense than the Pork, the Wood-roasted Potatoes, Baby Spinach and Salad Cream served as a nice, more neutral accompaniment. Although not quite as amazing as the Roast Potatoes we ate at Cape Lodge earlier in the week, they were nevertheless very good, with a nice crispy exterior and a smooth, mellow centre. Combined with the slight minerally and bitter flavour of the Spinach and the creaminess of the Salad Cream, this was a good side, and the combination of Pork, Potatoes and Apple Sauce filled Alissa with nostalgia for Dutch family feasts cooked by her Oma.
Alissa and I had never heard of a Clafoutis before, and didn't know what to expect when the Apricot Clafoutis with Bannister Downs Cream was brought out. A traditional French dessert that had been baked by Sophie in the wood fire oven, this was yet another excellent dish.
The flavour and texture reminded me of a combination of several desserts, bringing to mind pudding, pain perdu, hot eggy custard, a brulee and an apricot tart all in one. The tart sweetness of the apricots, the slight grit of the almond meal within and the smooth egginess made for a wonderful, comforting final course of our meal. To finish, coffee and tea were included. Impressively, the coffee was Fiori Espresso while there were a few loose leaf teas to choose from.
The Verdict: Excellent +
As Alissa and I walked out of Foragers we were absolutely buzzing.
"My god, how good was that?!?!" I said repeatedly, with Alissa in total agreement. Cape Lodge and Wills Domain were probably the best meals of our two week tour of the South West, however Foragers was definitely the best surprise of all. Hearty farmhouse fare is not unusual to the region, however the level of technical skill and the finesse on display made it stand out as food cooked by a very talented chef who really understood how to make fairly down to earth food pretty special. Given the style of food presented, Alissa and I were not surprised to learn that Zalokar used to work for Maggie Beer, however what is surprising is that this place is not more well known and didn't get a mention in the Good Food Guide. Seriously, if you're planning a trip to Pemberton, Manjimup or Karri Valley, try to be there for a Saturday (or a Friday during school holidays) so you can eat at Foragers. You won't regret it.