The King will walk on Tupelo!
Tupelo-o-o! O Tupelo!
He carried the burden outa Tupelo!
Tupelo-o-o! Hey Tupelo!
You will reap just what you sow.
You will reap just what you sow.
Tupelo Written by: Cave, Harvey, Adamson 1984
Slowly raising my sleep encrusted eyelids, I peered out across the doona. A smoky eyed youth dressed casually in torn stone washed jeans and a bared six pack stared back. His blonde frosted, spiky hair was nuzzled by a barefooted woman with a huge cork screw perm and they were draped decorously over an old Buick in a field: the ultimate ‘80s pin up couple in a black metal frame. Was I dreaming? Had I gone back in time?
No. It wasn’t 1984. It was 2009 and we were in a Southern Tasmanian B&B in The Huon’s beautiful Cygnet, fifty minutes drive south of Hobart. This is the town where my friend and chef, Steve Cumper has settled. Back in ‘84, Steve and I were probably rocking around the same Punk scene in St.Kilda, Pogo-ing on sticky carpet and watching a baby faced Nick Cave tear up the stage.
It was in this momentary time-warp however and later - standing in the ensuite’s marble patterned Formica time capsule of a shower cubicle – that I began to understand the mindset of the local customer who criticized Steve for daring to break from the formulaic pub approach to meals with his wonderful evening menu at The Red Velvet Lounge.
You see Cygnet is vaguely reminiscent of Victoria’s Daylesford in 1984. Early invaders - crusty folk singing, tea cozy wearing types - are gradually making way for a trickle of self funded retirees from the mainland settling into a tree-change, alongside a small gay community who’ve also recognized the town’s potential. But forming the core of the community are those born and raised in The Huon Valley, some perhaps frozen in another era - possibly also locked in a culinary limbo - and who I suspect may still be coming to grips with Steve’s efforts to create a contemporary menu supporting local and artisanal produce.
On the periphery of the community, former Chef and Sydney Morning Herald Restaurant Reviewer, Matthew Evans can be found acting out a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall scenario whilst being trailed by a film crew around his twee sounding property, Puggle Farm. In October, they will bring their footage of Cygnet to Australian TV viewers via SBS broadcasting.
In this picture, I imagine Steve Cumper to be Tasmania’s Alla Wolf Tasker - of Daylesford’s The Lake House - or an early version of Gourmet Traveller ‘National Treasure’ George Biron of Sunnybrae, tending his own farmlet and pushing the barrow of Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical (SOLE) food.
Back in '84 there was no way that I could afford to eat at a venue such as Alla’s or George’s. I couldn’t even afford the standard issue Punk studded leather motorcycle jacket. Steve couldn’t afford a car stereo so apparently had a cassette player taped to the dash of his old car.
In the eighties people my age who chose the ‘Alternative Lifestyle’ of local, biodynamic and artisanal food were presumed to be an unwashed hippie akin to Neil in The Young Ones, and not fit to dine in a fashionable restaurant. Now it’s all changed. Today SOLE food is becoming ‘de rigeur’ and Mr Sticky and I happily tucked into Steve’s special Friday evening meal at Red Velvet Lounge (RVL).
We came to RVL on what became our ‘Tasmania: Closed for the Weekend’ tour of the Apple Isle. Nearly everywhere we wanted to go was shut, in spite of advertising that they’d be open. Seems that those who could, had left Tassie for a break on the mainland. They must have flown out on one of those ridiculously cheap flights that had brought us there in the first place.
Consequently it was an unusually quiet night at RVL, with the subtle sounds of bossa nova from the stereo mingling with a few tables of polite chatter, until an aging folk music duo quietly settled on a couch in the corner of the room for guitar strumming, humming and harmonizing. There was a time where the folk music was the focus of this venue, not the food. But the balance has now changed. The diners we saw were indifferent to the music played at the front of the restaurant.
We found the service to be good at RVL. So often it is hard to manage this in regional venues, but I suspect that Steve’s nurturing nature knits this loyal group like a family. We began service with a couple of local beers, a Moo Brew from Moorilla and a ‘Cleansing Ale’ sighted on a chalkboard while considering the menu.
Although by day the Red Velvet Lounge is a small town café selling delicious wholesome daytime meals, suitable to vegan, vegetarian and omnivore alike, Friday and Saturday nights’ menu allows Steve to show off his prowess. Simple rustic sounding dishes - that won’t scare the natives - abound. But when you taste the food you realize that under the surface is a complex and imaginative array of meals that other chefs might be tempted to describe in four flowery lines of text. I love the restraint of description here. It allows you to discover the depths of Steve’s creativity orally with no major preconceptions to hinder the process.
Surveying the menu I wanted all the entrees on offer; we sampled three between us. I could not fault any of them. All wore a simple mantle that disguised the technical degree of difficulty combined with imagination that an experienced, meticulous chef can seemingly effortlessly pull off.
Between us we shared a rabbit pie floater with mushy peas and roasted parsnip which could have passed as a meal in-itself, as Steve doesn’t like to skimp on portions. There was no corner cutting here, a properly formed pie with lid sat picture perfect in the centre of the dish. Steve’s sour cream pastry was the perfect foil to the unctuous filling, offset beautifully by fluffy mushy peas and the sweetness of a roasted parsnip.
When it came time to swap plates, my nose was greeted by the wonderful aromas of the grilled Rannoch Farm quail. I lingered, inhaling it and then the saliva swarmed my palate until I just had to taste it. This was not a dish I anticipated in a regional restaurant but it was everything you would wish for – a fine mélange of fresh local flavours: delicate moist flesh with artichokes, punctuated with the tang and firmness of olives, then vine leaves and finally the verjuice, which made me think of Steve’s days with Maggie Beer in the Barossa.
Thirdly, we shared the duck neck sausage which was a thick, coarse, almost terrine like item, sliced and served with a wee jar of smooth, rich pâté, celeriac remoulade and some cornichons. The lot sat on a thin, long wooden board which was also graced by thick char-grilled slices of Steve’s famous bread, baked in the Restaurant’s original Scotch oven.
The pâté had Mr Sticky hooked, so silky and flavorsome was it. Perfectly rustic & slightly gamey, the total combination of textures and deep flavours in this entrée made it subtly sophisticated, and yet had me imagining that it would have been the ideal picnic dish for sitting by the water, watching the pod of whales that had recently graced the locals with a sighting.
When the main courses arrived, I was feeling nearly full already. But we forged on. Before me sat an impressive thick cut, crumbed pork Cotoletta upon a mound of velvety parmesan enriched mashed potato. Greed took over. Slicing in, it was perfectly moist and satisfied my wicked desire for crunchy, crumbed and fried meat. Baby rocket rounded out the vegetable content and a wicked dish of aioli flecked with local truffles sat alongside, enriching the palate further.
It crossed my tongue with a sigh of satisfaction. Whilst the execution was technically perfect, what made this special was that the integrity of the high quality produce was not compromised or gussied up as to become pretentious. It was a homely Mittle European style dish and for those who might be wary of modern ways, did not make a song-and-dance about the skill required to produce and prepare it.
The slow roasted leg of lamb rendered Mr Sticky speechless with admiration. Slow cooked for five hours, then pressed and finished again in the oven, it was a melt in the mouth, rib-sticking piece of deliciousness. The seasoning added richness. The lamb lost none of the honesty of its flavor in the process and did not have the cloying fattiness that some lamb dishes suffer. With the Cassoulet like braise of Cannelini beans, spinach and another side - this time of anchovy mayonnaise - it was a hearty dish that I could see my beloved was almost loathe to part with as we swapped plates. In my opinion it was an exemplary dish, the likes of which one might have presumed ought to have earned RVL a place in the 09 Gourmet Traveller Food Guide had they tried it.
I was thankful that the restaurant was quiet that night, as it allowed Steve the chance to come out and chat. At this point, chatting excitedly - albeit with food still left on our plates - I was already in a food coma. Mr Sticki however was tempted to order dessert. His choice was the chocolate mousse with peppermint praline. He may have felt full, but this slipped down quickly, lubricated with cream.
I took one mouthful and it was a trip to chocolate heaven, smooth and rich, offset by the crunch of the crumbled sugary mint candy. It was elegant and unbound by gimicry. My coffee sufficed to end my meal. Enlivened by good conversation and a fine repast, I was thoroughly sated.
One of the things I admire and respect in Steve is his optimistic and humble nature. He keeps his head down and charts his own course without hype or braggadocio. Early in his career he worked at Melbourne’s famous Tsindos Bistrot, under Ray Tsindos, son of iconic Chef George Tsindos, the man who for 40 years brought Florentino’s high repute.
Later Steve joined Maggie Beer’s Pheasant Farm Restaurant in The Barossa Valley, at that time regarded as Australia’s equivalent to Alice Waters. Other highlights include launching Soul Mama with Paul Mathis, raising the reputations of the Zampelis Restaurant Group and later winning Vogue Entertaining’s Award for use of local produce at Tasmania’s Peppermint Bay Restaurant. Not that he’ll wave any of that in your face. Steve is a thinker, an artisan, a talented chef and family man with his feet planted firmly in the ground while he dreams up beautiful recipes.
Similarly the venue is humble. Like a big warm hug from Nana, the venue allows you to rest in the comfort of its vaguely retro bosom. A former double fronted General store, the café-cum-restaurant features a counter and display cases showcasing Steve’s breads, jams and preserves. An open kitchen is disguised at night by an enormous floor to ceiling red curtain. There is a wood combustion stove, leather couches and heavy tables and chairs. It walks a dignified line between a busy casual breakfast and lunch café for most of the week, and an approachable rustic restaurant on Friday and Saturday evenings that doesn’t intimidate the old school locals.
Evidently Steve’s taken the softly-softly approach here, evolving the venue’s approach gradually from Crusty-Wholefood café to City style dining. So it was no surprise when Cygnet locals told us “they went spare” when RVL closed for renovations, feeling bereft without Steve’s handmade bread, asking if he could continue to service them in spite of the closure. Also the Tree-changers declaring that RVL had “The best coffee for miles” who suffered in silence before they could again enjoy their ritual caffeine hit.
After enjoying both, I can totally understand their loyalty and why the people of Hobart and beyond will drive out of their way to eat Steve’s food. For at the heart of this place is a quiet, determined passion within a spirited thinker who cares not a jot for fashion, but for what is intrinsically good in the world. If you’re visiting Hobart, I highly recommend that you book a table there one night and see for yourself....and tell him Sticky sent you.
The Red Velvet Lounge
24 Mary Street, Cygnet, Tasmania, Australia
03 6295 0466