Chef Nelly Robinson – Not Everything Is Always as It Seems
The Chef Series at The Datai Langkawi has been a hot ticket for diners since the resort’s reopening towards the end of 2018. On special occasions, the resort plays host to legendary chefs from around the world including the likes of Michel and Sébastien Bras. Within the lush surrounds of the Malaysian rainforest, gourmands dine on cuisine prepared by chefs from world-class restaurants without having to fly halfway around to world to get it. This weekend, it’s Chef Nelly Robinson who helms The Datai’s kitchen.
Chef Nelly is of the famed Sydney restaurant, nel. Although he has gained multiple accolades in Australia, his career began in his teens in the Michelin-starred restaurant Northcote Manor in London. From there, chef Nelly quickly went on to head kitchens and honed his skills around the world, before opening nel. restaurant in Australia in 2016.
The Datai Langkawi’s fine dining restaurant, The Dining Room, is the location for the culinary performance. We commence cocktail-fashion on the deck with canapes and later move to white-clothed tables for the rest of the meal. Overlooking the pool and at eye’s level with the rainforest’s canopy, we are already in a stimulating setting. The menu, however, gives us new things to dream about.
Chef Nelly Robinson – Dégustation Menu
Gaining inspiration from The Datai Langkawi’s natural home, Chef Nelly Robinson has curated a menu guaranteed to, if not knock the socks off a few, at least raise a few eyebrows and nods of “glad we came” delight. As the rainforest setting is often full of surprise, so too are the recipes on this menu. The tagline, “not everything is always as it seems,” is well-suited as we are about to find out.
Sidewood Estate Wines and Ciders
But, before we do, a quick introduction to Sidewood Estate, the wines and ciders chosen to partner the creative feast. Adelaide Hills’ largest eco-sustainable winery produces balance and elegance in every glass. Just as chef Nelly moulds dreams into edible masterpieces, these winemakers make an art form out of crafting single-vineyard cool-climate wines. And, it’s with the Sidewood Estate, Chloe Cuvee, Adelaide Hills 2014 that we launch. A blend of 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay offers berries, citrus and faint toasted notes on the nose. In the mouth, it’s well-integrated and quite dry.
We’re excited by the bubbly but even more thrilled to kick off the menu by “digging for truffles.” Influenced by mud and the swamp, we’re presented with a wooden box filled with black “soil.” We scoop through “dirt” to uncover a “truffle.” Minced chicken, potato and mushroom are encased in the thinnest of crusts. They’re warm and comforting.
Splash, Spice and Shot
Chef jokes that his science teacher said he never did well with “test tubes” in school, but he sure has turned that around with the Thai-style green curry with spiced prawns. It’s like no curry you’d ever imagine. Balls of minced prawns sit as if heads on totem poles. Pluck off the sphere, chew it a few times and then down the test tube that sides it. Clear coconut water sits on the bottom of the tube while spicy curry floats on top. It sure is a conversation starter.
We take our seats for the rest of the menu and are again surprised by the next item, Tomato Marshmallow. Its appearance is not even close to how it tastes. What looks like a puffy white marshmallow is actually tomato water with white vinegar and Parmesan shavings. Chef recommends popping the entire cloud into your mouth and allowing the ingredients to return to their liquid form. Wow!
Sidewood Estate, Mappinga Fumé Blanc, Adelaide Hills 2015 is a limited release wine due to its low yield. This sauvignon blanc is given a unique character with barrel fermentation for eight months in French oak. Aromas billow out of the glass and are followed by bold flavours of nashi and citrus. The texture enters creamy and ends with a bright, crisp finish. It’s complex and layered, and you might even get some herbaceous notes after swallowing. This is also a “wow” for me. For those of you who have “had enough” sav blanc, this one might make you reconsider.
Sea Mates is presented as a bowl of fresh crabmeat, macadamia purée, pickled carrot, mint and a garnish of pegaga. Service staff pour over tomato water tableside to complete the dish. The team attempted to source the majority of ingredients on this menu within a 15-mile radius of the hotel. The crabs were trapped just yesterday, and the herbs plucked from the on-site organic garden shortly before dinner. This recipe is light and fresh – turns out to be my top pick for the evening.
Double Surfin’ arrives with a story from the chef. Giving credit to the locality of the ingredients, Nelly tells that he communicated to the kitchen team yesterday morning that he didn’t think the Spanish mackerel would be enough for the menu. One of the group, apparently, called up a friend, who then went out to sea, caught another mackerel and had it back to the kitchen ten minutes later!
The fish has been marinated for 24 hours and is thickly sliced atop smoked yoghurt and pickled cucumber. A lobster crumb adds texture and an extra dose of savoury to the crown. This dish has a good level of heat to it; a nod to one of Nelly’s favoured ingredients, chillies.
The wine mate, Sidewood Estate, Mappinga Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills 2016, is a multiple gold-award winner and has received a weighty 95 points from acclaimed Australian wine critics. Winemaker Darryl Catlin is personally responsible for selecting the best fruit from the vineyard. The bunches are then whole-pressed and wild-yeast fermented in French oak. Citrus and melon are immediately detected in the bouquet, and a well-defined structure adds in honey and a thread of nuttiness. The crisp ending clears the palate of the remaining omega 3s from the fish, preparing mouths for the main course.
When the main is delivered, I suddenly regret trying “one of everything” in the breadbasket. I can barely do the 26-hour slow-cooked beef short rib justice with baguette, mushroom bread, walnut bread and a savoury scroll in my stomach. The main is worth the loosening of a belt notch, however, and the with black garlic sauce, braised onions and beef fat butter with local mushrooms all get a thumbs up.
The Sidewood Estate, Mappinga Shiraz, Adelaide Hills 2015 is the perfect companion to slice through the richness of this dish. Ripe plum, spring flowers and a hint of cinnamon tickle the nose, and the mouth fills with juicy fruit layered with spice. It concludes with a long savoury finish.
Peter Rabbit’s Garden
Plated on a slice of a polished tree trunk, Peter Rabbit’s Garden sees a superbly moist rectangle of carrot cake partnered with mandarin sorbet, yoghurt foam and edible soil. Beatrix Potter is just north of where chef Nelly grew up and so this sweet is all about Peter Rabbit stealing the carrots. The ginger, yuzu and carrot sorbet is the highlight with the liquorice and chocolate crumb a close runner up.
An inside story from the kitchen has us wondering if chef Nelly ever sleeps… Apparently, yesterday, this dish was served on a regular white plate. This morning, the chef found a fallen tree on the property and decided that slices of the trunk would be much better than a boring old piece of ceramic. So, they sliced it up, coated the rounds, and now, even the plates can be credited as 100% local.
Turning from vineyards to orchards, Sidewood Estate, Pear Cider, Adelaide Hills matches the “garden” dish. Hand-crafted, vegan and gluten-free, Sidewood Estate’s ciders contain nothing but fruit. Unlike their mass-produced counterparts, these products are only gently sweet, showcasing the natural freshness of the fruit.
What’s better than one dessert?
Chef Nelly Robinson announces the arrival of the final masterpiece, “Chocolate sorbet, chocolate trunk, chocolate branches, chocolate ganache, chocolate soil… you’re buggered if you don’t like chocolate, aren’t you?” We smash the “trunk” in the middle and out spills a mint cream – a fantastic complement.
From pears to apples, the meal is complete with Sidewood Estate’s Apple Cider. And, just as the former presented as fresh, crisp fruit so too does the latter. Bright with green apple flavours and a floral whisper, this cider is slightly bubbly and progresses from a faintly sweet entrance to a dry cleansing close.
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