Tom Tilbury wants local and organic produce to be a feature for diners at his restaurant.

In 2009, Megan and Troy Rhoades-Brown opened Muse Restaurant at Hungerford Hill in the Hunter Valley with the aim of creating one of Australia’s finest regional restaurants. Awarded Gourmet Traveller WINE’s Best Cellar Door with Food 10 years later, they have certainly done that.

What did your cooking journey to Muse look like?

I didn’t take the traditional training route for a young chef; first I worked at Pasquale’s, a family owned Italian restaurant in Newcastle, and a wonderful introduction to the industry. But Roberts Restaurant in Pokolbin, run by regional heroes Robert and Sally Molines, truly opened my eyes to what a restaurant could be. The kitchen was an exciting and energetic place, where we juggled passion and curiosity with a menu strong in French tradition. I remember being blown away by the produce and techniques around me. Local quails were marinated, hung and tea-smoked in the dining room. Local baby goats, suckling pigs, wild deer, rabbit and partridge were butchered in-house. The charcuterie section made pâté, rillettes and country terrines, and our seafood selection included pipis, yabbies and sea snails.  It was a very special restaurant with a timeless offering, and an absolute turning point for me.

What is it about the Hunter Valley that you continue to love?

It’s is a beautiful place to live and close to Sydney. We have great wines, producers, people, activities and history – an attractive combination for a tourist destination. I love being able to grow a few things at home and I carry a lot of pride in the idea of supporting and championing local producers to showcase our region, and then teaming that with produce from my garden.

The Hunter Valley isn’t the easiest of places for growing produce. We get cold winters with heavy frosts, then very hot summers with destructive storms. It’s the small growers’ dedication to what they do that makes the local produce so special.

Rhoades-Brown is enamoured with  the local produce.
Rhoades-Brown is enamoured with the local produce.

How have restaurants and the dining experience evolved from when you started cooking?

There has been a strong cultural shift towards more regular dining out, without needing an occasion to do so. Guests generally appreciate what we do more, giving our industry the confidence to be a little more diverse and creative with our cooking, drinks and venues. Technology has moved incredibly fast, for both the guests’ experience and back-of-house systems.

For the industry’s smaller offerings, it is tough to maintain a competitive price point against larger businesses with alternative revenue streams, given rising costs of produce, rent, wages and overheads. But even with the statistics firmly stacked against any new owner-operators, there are some that nail the recipe for success and do so in superstar fashion. It’s these white unicorns of the industry that keep enticing people into opening venues.  

Just as Hungerford Hill pioneers new grape varieties, how have your own gardening experiments steered the direction of your menus?

For 10 of my 12 years at Muse, I have grown much of the restaurant’s produce at home. I grow plenty of varieties that might be different from the home gardener’s patch, including ice plant, anise and curry myrtle, shiso, Mexican cucumbers, three-corner leeks, African-honed melons, plumcots, and white and pink society garlic. But what is most exciting is how much of the actual plant we use. Where we can, we use everything from the young shoots, to seeds and flowers.  

I had my nasturtium on a wood-fired Murray cod dish with XO school prawn butter. We finely chopped the plant’s stem for a salsa, served the leaves fresh and puréed, salted the seed pods like capers, and used the flowers as a kombucha vinegar and also served fresh.  

A big reason behind our unique offering at Muse is that many of my garden successes or fails promote creativity with our dishes. Once I forgot to water the turnip and radish patch so the plants bolted, and threw seed pods and flowers, leading us to finish our beef dish with sautéed radish pods and turnip flowers for that month. This no-waste approach to cooking and growing is ingrained in our menu.

Muse has a menu to more than match its  stunning surrounds.
Muse has a menu to more than match its stunning surrounds.

What are some of the most delicious food and wine pairings you have created at the restaurant?

Among my favourites have been our pan-roasted Little Hill Farm chicken terrine, with our own Morpeth sweet corn polenta and Mother Fungus mushrooms, paired with Lake’s Folly Chardonnay; or wood-fired Wagyu tri-tip with our black garlic buckwheat risotto, paired with Keith Tulloch The Kester Shiraz. But my most memorable pairing was for a special wine dinner, where I matched lightly whipped Saint Agur blue cheese with warm Christmas spiced cake, estate honey and local pecans to a 1989 Château d’Yquem Sauternes.  

What do you most enjoy cooking in the late summer months?  

I’m looking forward to light fresh dishes – raw Swansea bonito with Lovedale finger lime, heirloom cucumbers from Newcastle Greens and my own purslane, cucumber flowers and green chillies. In the garden, heirloom tomatoes, Japanese shishito peppers, young nasturtium shoots, fragrant basils, zucchini varieties and local berries will be thriving.

Where do you recommend visitors dine in the Hunter Valley?

Breakfast and coffee at Cafe Enzo, then browse the beautiful gifts and homewares at Fetch, such as The Lumberjacks’ local natural timber pieces. Hungerford Meat Co is well worth the short drive for outstanding local dry-aged meats, salumi and charcuterie.

For long lunches, head to Bistro Molines, with a wine tasting at Briar Ridge; or Yellow Billy, with a wine tasting at Piggs Peake Winery. Margan Restaurant offers onsite wine tasting and Usher Tinkler Wines is another favourite, while Leaves & Fishes Restaurant has great child-friendly options.

For a special night out, Muse Restaurant is my biased top pick – but you’re in for a wonderful experience with a bar reservation at EXP Restaurant.

Fragrant Thai basil lifts this cucumber and kingfish salad.
Fragrant Thai basil lifts this cucumber and kingfish salad.

Raw kingfish salad with honeydew, cucumber, verjuice, ginger, lime & Thai basil

Troy Rhoades-Brown, co-owner and chef at Muse, Hunter Valley.
Serves: 2

¼ honeydew melon, peeled, deseeded and thinly sliced
100g cucumber, finely sliced
10g ginger, finely chopped
15ml verjuice (Troy uses Hungerford Hill Chardonnay verjuice)
15ml lime juice
200g sashimi-grade Hiramasa kingfish (substitute sashimi grade tuna, ocean trout or bonito)
10ml white soy sauce
10g eschalot, finely sliced
1 tbsp grapeseed oil
20 Thai basil leaves

1  Mix honeydew ribbons, cucumber, ginger, verjuice and lime in a bowl, and set aside.

2 Slice the kingfish approximately 5-7mm thick, and combine in a separate bowl with white soy, sliced eschalot and grapeseed oil.

3 To plate, gently layer and arrange the ingredients and finish with Thai basil.