Molecular gastronomy. Whether you are amazed by it or not, those who know me should know that I love it. Australia is somewhat lagging behind in comparison to Europe and America on the number of molecular gastronomy restaurants out there. Could you imagine my excitement when I discovered another molecular gastronomy restaurant upon our shores? Ritual is located in Nelson Bay and is situated in a residential area, among an IGA and video rental store. From the outside, you wouldn’t think that an innovative and creative dining experience is offered in this premise. Ritual offers a 3 hour tasting menu for up to 20 guests a night at $95 per person (edit – $110pp as of Jan 2013).
Some drinks were ordered to kick the night off. I had the Ritual Blend ($14.50); a concoction of rhubarb liqueur shaken over ice with Cointreau, bitters, Malibu and mineral water. It was refreshing and fruity, which could be a dangerous thing because I scoffed this down a bit too quickly. Ant had the Matilda Bay Dogbolter ($9.50); a dark lager with bitter notes of chocolate and caramel. He wasn’t too fond of this beer as it was a little too heavy for the meal and he doesn’t really like lager (it didn’t occur to us at the time to ask the waitress what type of beer it was).
Once we were comfortable at our table, we were offered garlic fairy floss with rosemary. Woody aromatics from the rosemary tantalised our olfactory senses. The fairy floss was light as air, slightly sweet and had a subtle garlic flavour; being fairy floss, this was a playful way to start our dinner.
Next up was vegemite with toast which wasn’t actually vegemite and toast. Our waiter wouldn’t reveal what it was until after we finished; encouraging us to guess what it was. My guess was that the toast was some kinda of deep-fried cheese but it was actually fried besan (ground chickpea flour) patties dusted with semolina and the vegemite was black garlic aioli. The garlic is black because it has undergone a fermentation process resulting in cloves of sweet and garlicky goodness.
Chef Carl runs the show at Ritual. After our appetisers, he comes out of the kitchen to welcome us and explain the concept of the menu. It is based of a poem by Dorothea McKellar called My Country. Sceneries were chosen from the poem; becoming focal points for the 3 courses. Flavours combinations are then devised to fit in with these sceneries; taking in consideration of sourcing local produce and incorporating them into these dishes. Amongst these 3 dishes, many miniature courses were offered as well. Matching beverages were also provided to heighten the dining experience.
When we were seated at the table we noticed a bowl with a pill-like object; we were told that it was not edible. Like magic, this object transforms into a mini hand towel with the addition of a little water. It’s the sense of wonder and mystic that has us guessing throughout the night of what we are to be experiencing.
The staff at Ritual spend time in getting to know their guest and strategically place people around the table to ensure there are constant interactions throughout the night. To set us at ease and get us knowing our fellow diners, ice breaker cards were provided to each diner to encourage us to share a little about ourselves. The best thing about my job….? Possibly being able to improve the quality of life of cancer patients…
[Just a note, for ease of detailing this dining experience to you, the order of these following courses does not reflect our dinner chronologically.]
After the introduction, a Tom Yum Soup sphere was brought to our table; I must admit, I was a little too excited when I saw this. Having had a first-hand encounter last year playing around with a molecular gastronomy technique called reverse spherification. This process allows one to create spheres encasing any flavoured liquid inside.
A small sprig of coriander and slither of chilli was provided on the side for us to place on the top of the sphere if we wish to have it. The sphere sat on top of a Spanish onion omelette and we were instructed to place the entire thing in our mouth. Once placed in the mouth, the sphere bursts, releasing the warm sweet and sour soup. What impressed me the most was that Tom Yum Soup sphere also featured a piece of prawn inside it. Amazing!
Throughout the evening, we were provided with flavour options for the upcoming 3 courses. This is when we let our taste buds dictate the dishes we will have that night. It was interesting that Ant and I were both divided on the flavour options for the entree and main; but for our dessert choices, there was no clear favourite for either of us.
The flavour options for each course were:
- Entree: chocolate, tomato and smoke OR citrus, ginger, honey and wasabi
- Main: sage, cumquat and whisky OR beetroot, green peppercorn and mushrooms
- Dessert: harissa, cardamon, apricot and macadamia OR figs, eucalyptus and balsamic.
Ant chose the citrus, ginger, honey and wasabi entree flavour combination. Colours of the Great Barrier Reef and images of blue ringed octopus offered inspiration for this jewelled sea dish.
To transport these images into reality, a fine mixture of anchovy and wakame rice made up the sand; honey-smoked and cured rings of kingfish with smoked herring roe, salmon roe and wasabi flying fish caviar resemble the octopus tentacles; brightly coloured coral reefs were created by duo of tempura kingfish flavoured with wasabi and mandarin, topped with a beer batter coral, as well as a squid ink-coated sous vide and seared kingfish; and scattered throughout the dish was ginger and yuzu froth. Having sourced Port Stephen oysters locally from Holberts Oyster Farm, these oysters also made a feature in the dish and were preserved two ways; one in red wine and the other in olive oil.
A busy but very pretty dish, Ant enjoyed this dish and didn’t want to share it with me. I don’t blame him!
My entree combines earthy flavours of chocolate, tomato and smoke to set the scene of wood fires, river fishing and mountain hunting when one spends Winter nights in cabins within ragged mountain ranges.
At the top of the plate, smoked eel tapioca chips with goat and tomato jam roulades form the ragged mountain ranges. A river of chocolate and tomato sauce flows through the dish carrying a choko, potato and tomato jam raft supporting slices of smoked eel. A dollop of creamy goats cheese and refreshing clear tomato jelly provide additional accompaniments to this dish. The dish had a general smokey taste to it which matched the bitter chocolate tones of the sauce and rich tomato flavours. The goat was tender which was perfectly offset by the crispy tapioca chips.
Before we proceeded with our mains, we were provided with a palate teaser according to the flavour option we chose. Ant’s golden beetroot cappuccino was creamy and warming whilst my sage and burnt butter ice cream was insanely good; hints of nuttiness were masked by a creamy, buttery taste. These tiny spoonfuls were not enough!
Ant’s main compasses an unusual flavour combination of beetroot, green peppercorn and mushroom to create the image of orchids deck the tree tops and ferns the warm dark soil.
The warm dark soil is presented on the bottom of the plate by a mixture of lentils and mushroom paté with small pieces of mushroom sprouting from it. Two trees decked with flowers cut from pickled heirloom beetroot are present here; the one on the left features a beetroot-marinated lamb backstrap sitting on a feta and beetroot dip with foliage of spinach leaves and wafer-thin rocket potato chips, and the one of the right is a mushroom paté-filled lamb cutlet crumbed with dehydrated beetroot also with foliage of spinach leaves and beetroot chips.
Both cuts of meat were perfectly cooked and tender.
My main combines the flavours of sage, cumquat and whisky and vision of rabbits scattered though sweeping plains.
Roulades of rabbit stuffed with salted cumquat and sage sat on crispy rösti which were fluffy on the inside. The rabbit was juicy and tender, with a little sweetness provided from the cumquat and whisky marmalade glaze. Naturally, accompanying rabbits are carrots, heirloom carrots in fact, however I found them to be a little too crunchy for my liking. A pile of barley provides nuttiness whilst the fluorescent cumquat and whisky sauce swirled around the plate not only adds visual appeal but a pleasant sweetness to this dish.
Use of harissa, cardamon, apricot and macadamia for Ant’s dessert surely portrays a striking image of a sunburnt country.
The design of the dish is supposed to give us a feel of driving through the arid landscape with rocky formations found along the way. Following the trail of cardamom sherbet and harrisa caramel soil, from the bottom of the plate finds one stumbling upon a deep-fried harissa ice cream in a macadamia crumb served along with an apricot and cardamom sauce. Moving along the trail, to the left is a harissa, cardamom fudge topped with poached apricot and to the right are some harissa crystallised macadamia nuts. Then finally at the end of the road is a baklava of macadamia and apricot, and apricot jube and macadamia praline.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t really anything Ant enjoyed on this dish as he found the spices a little too overwhelming and spicy.
My dessert was definitely something worth being envious over, stark white ring barked forest paints images of tall ghostly trees with the use of figs, eucalypt and balsamic to create this whimsical dessert.
With multiple components to this dessert, it was hard to decide on where to start. The red wine and balsamic liqueur lollipop is sweet and tart as well as the balsamic fig eucalypt meringue pie which was perfect; buttery tart shell, sweet, jammy filling and marshmallow-like meringue. The playful presentation of millefeuille representing a tree is constructed with crumbly shortbread, a balsamic crème fraiche centre and dehydrated fig leaves; the leaves remind me of fruit roll ups. Fig leaf marshmallow rolled in fig leaf sherbet and balsamic tile is irresistibly soft and fluffy. Then the pièce de résistance, balsamic ice-cream with fig jam and fig leaf nitro balls; the ice cream was luscious and thankfully didn’t taste so much like balsamic and the nitro balls were made at the table.
Now what is molecular gastronomy without the liquid nitrogen? Carl emerges from the kitchen holding a container filled with it and begins to make nitro balls at the table. He has made an extract from fig leaves and pipettes the extract into the liquid nitrogen. We were suppose to wait until they warmed to room temperature, but silly and highly excited me couldn’t wait, so I popped some into my mouth and ended up (frost) burning some of my taste buds. It was worth it though!
It’s not often that you see beer offered to match your meal, let alone tea! We both decided on having matching tea ($8) with our meal after seeing others having the matching tea option. It was definitely different to have tea to match our meals but it was pleasant, soothing and they definitely highlighted the dominant flavours of the dish; allowing these flavours to further linger in our mouths.
I can see this matching tea option being appreciated by designated drivers or people who simply don’t want alcoholic drinks to match all their dishes.
Accompanying this dining experience was the Wall Art concept; it is basically a wall filled with tiny spoonfuls of tasty treats. Throughout the night, we were instructed to pick items from the wall. The concept was to play around with flavours and textures to continually excite our taste buds.
One of the first wall art treats was the artichoke; a play on textures. Presented in a sealed toothpaste tube, the artichoke paste was smooth and creamy with a slight briny taste which went well with the crispy, fried artichoke heart.
The next two spoonfuls play with the salty element; on the left is the Bangalow pork crackling with sour plum and on the right is a rye crispbread with smoked cheese, caper and crispy chicken skin. Both treats were tasty as they featured crispy pork crackling/chicken skin; you can’t go wrong with either. Ant and I were secretly hoping that these were the tasters for our main courses.
Having seen this at Tomislav before, strawberry scent with celery seed rice crackerssees a fun flavour pairing unfold. Who says you shouldn’t play with your food? With an atomiser containing a sweet strawberry liquid, we are encouraged to spray as much or as little of the strawberry onto the rice cracker, as well as on our (or dining partner’s) tongue and in the air to heighten the sense of strawberry. Surprisingly this flavour combination works well.
Smoked and pickle quail egg is nicknamed bacon and eggs as it’s suppose to taste like it. Whilst it doesn’t actually taste like bacon, hints of smokiness would remind you of it.
Heading towards our dessert course, we were presented with 2 pre-dessert wall art concepts; both pairing flavour combinations that may seem to be odd at first but work somehow. The dark and white French organic chocolate fudge with pink peppercorn is sweet but the dark chocolate and crushed peppercorn tones it down. Normally not favouring cheeses, the Hunter Valley ‘Blumembert’ with caramelised pineapple and lemon basil took me by surprise. With the slightest hint of blue cheese, the creamy blumembert paired nicely with the sweet and sticky caramelised slither of pineapple.
Throughout the night we had several cleansers to refresh our palate. First up was parsley sorbet which tasted exactly like parsley and was oddly refreshing and for some reason I wanted more, the texture was irresistibly smooth. The second cleanser was mint, vinegarette granita which had a nice subtle mint flavour.
Also before our dessert and accompanying the mint palate cleanser was the mint shisha. For those who are unfamiliar with shisha, it’s a device for smoking flavoured tobacco. We were assured that there was no tobacco in this what so ever and that it was actually mint water instead. How it works is that there’s charcoal on the top of the contraption and as you inhale through the hose, hot air is created as air passes through the charcoal and into the water, causing it to bubble and produce a flavoured smoke. The idea is the more you inhale, the quicker the flavoured smoke gets produced and the more of the mint flavour you can taste.
It was a fun and awesome experience blowing out puffs of smoke.
Yes, I must admit, this was one of the main reasons why I wanted to come up to Nelson Bay. What an interesting dining experience this dinner has been, for $95/person, it definitely is value for money. The staff was extremely helpful in explaining the dishes carefully to us and assisting those around us with any of their dietary requirements. The main conceptual degustation is changed yearly but adapted to local and seasonal produce, however sometimes there are special degustation menus to celebrate special events/holidays eg Christmas, where a 12 course menu is centred around the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas“. So if you are ever around the area, I highly recommend visiting this restaurant, but book ahead as there are limited seating every night.