Atticus, the philosopher who was kicking about a couple thousand years ago, said "The right muse will inspire truths over imagination" I would counter that Troy Rhoades Brown and his team at Muse in Pokolbin, in New South Wales' Hunter Valley have used imagination to bring you truth, or at least authenticity, integrity and for lack of a better word, a passion for local Hunter Valley produce creating a menu that both honours and respects that produce.
Troy has had a very linear career, with each decision clearly well thought out. He started cooking in Newcastle at 15, before moving to the Hunter Valley. He won a scholarship to work with fellow Novacastrian Brett Graham at The Ledbury in London, inspiring his decision to open Muse in 2009 at the age of just 24 with his wife Megan. With no financial backers and in the middle of the global financial crisis, it was a hell of a risk. 12 years on Muse Restaurant has won most of the awards up for offer in NSW and more broadly, including the Appetite for Excellence Young Restaurateur of the Year in 2014, which is where I first met Troy. These venues have continue to inspire and motivate him. We know this because what comes to the table is love, commitment and dedication on a plate.
Muse Kitchen followed 2 years later in 2011 and they have gone from strength to strength. There is little ego, a lot of humility and in many similar situations, others would have been tempted to continue growing an empire. A commitment to authenticity and integrity probably prevents him from even thinking about it.
The menu changes mostly by season, and is a degustation style with several choices in some courses. Four courses with the added options of a cheese course and Australian black truffles. You can choose to pair wines with each course, or go it alone with an extensive wine list showcasing the very best of the Hunter and NSW, along with select European and Australian additions to round it out. 12 pages of choices by the bottle and a great selection by the glass.
The onsite garden provides an array of fresh produce, inspiring the creation of each seasonal menu, with the remainder championing the produce of both the region and slightly further afield. Try some freshly shucked Appellation oysters to start, with 3 different preparations - including wood fired with katsuobushi butter. Katsuobushi is smoked and fermented skipjack, and is heaven on this oyster. The first course is a buffalo cheese with beetroot baked in salt, oxalis or wood sorrel, pomegranate seeds and local pecans from Branxton just up the road.
There are several choices for the next course, including kangaroo, bonito or a potato & speck fondant with mushrooms, cured egg yolk and truffle. All are elegant and refined, as we would expect. A choice of Wagyu tri-tip, pan fried Murray Cod or a local chicken with pippies and cured pork follows - and again each are deftly handled, precise and very very pretty dishes.
The cheese course drops in here, if chosen, before a palate cleanser of local yoghurt, verjuice and native finger lime prepares you for the final course. There are three very wintery desserts including roasted butternut squash with native herbs, macadamias, red grape jam and a whisky butterscotch being the stand out.
Muse Restaurant is not trying to be anything but itself. It continues to evolve into a better version of itself, and with a good eight years between visits, is better and more sophisticated than before. While some Sydney restaurants push the envelope on both price and creativity, Muse is a beacon the Hunter Valley for well priced and brilliantly executed fine dining. The entire experience was faultless, and in our mind, without peer in the region.
$140pp + cheese course and truffles ($32) Wine pairing was $95
Dinner Tues - Sat by reservation
Muse Restaurant is at Hungerford Hill Winery. Broke Road, Pokolbin NSW.