The food in the Hunter Valley promises much. For one thing, Australia is a giant produce garden. As in Sydney, every restaurant we sampled offered brilliant basics—fat tomatoes, sweet asparagus, glistening seafood, superb meats—and often imaginative, thoughtful recipes. If there is a shortcoming in the cooking of the Hunter Valley, it is the same one you find in Sydney, New York, and Paris: the tendency to overcomplicate and mistrust the exceptional raw materials. Usually, this results in a dish that, with so many personalities, ultimately lacks a single personality, like a novel with one sentence by Faulkner, another by Pound, and a third by Tennessee Williams.
The most egregious offender in the Hunter Valley is Chez Pok, part of the very pretty Peppers hotel (the rooms are a bit spartan, but the grounds are a delight). A superb slice of tuna is balanced on top of mashed potatoes complicated with kippers, tomatoes, and chives, then unnecessarily sauced with a reduction of butter, cream, and a garish sweet wine. The tuna would have been excellent on its own, but instead became accessory to a ponderous, pretentious muddle.
Faring considerably better—though still given to fussiness—is the Cellar Restaurant, the Hunter Valley's other bordering-on-exceptional boîte. Here, food is served in towers, too, though the Cellar is on the threshold of excellence. A very fine salad of seared Tasmanian salmon with smoked mussels cleverly accented with chorizo is somewhat muffled with saffron rice and finally overpowered by a paprika aioli. Each of the layers could stand alone, as could the components of a remarkable prime sirloin atop a creative concoction of Gorgonzola-and-spinach dumplings and unusually crisp prosciutto. But forked all together, it's difficult to get in your mouth unless you have the jaws of a sword swallower.
Tower Lodge serves no towers at its only meal, and for the first time in my life, I understood why a "full English breakfast" could delight: a rhubarb confit flavored with rose water on slices of toast; pears poached in Sauternes and cinnamon; a Roma tomato perfect and peeled and lightly buttered after baking; meaty portobellos; sausages, bacon, and eggs that conjured images of childhood.
The luxurious simplicity of the Tower breakfast was emblematic of the hotel itself, the surrounding valley, the lush vineyards, and the cool green and purple fruit they celebrate.
The best place to start tasting is Tower Lodge itself, where Len Evans bottles the best grapes from all over Australia under the Tower Estate label—like an all-star baseball team of wines. His bottles represent the gold standard, but here are a few other cellar doors to visit:
These wines are consistently strong. The Rayner and Graveyard Vineyard Shirazes are exceptional, and the Jelka Riesling is truly excellent.
MCDONALDS RD., POKOLBIN; 61-2/4998-7559; www.brokenwood.com.au
This small producer (6,000 cases a year) has a reput-ation for cutting-edge vintages: try the '98 Hunter Valley Shiraz. The winery features ever-changing exhibitions of arts and crafts.
LONDONS RD., LOVEDALE; 61-2/4990-2904
The immense tasting room with huge wooden casks and beamed ceilings looks like an opera set. The Brokenback Shirazes and the '99 Gerry Sissingh Selection Sémillons are particularly noteworthy.
BROKE RD., POKOLBIN; 61-2/4998-7363
A boutique winery with a spaceship-like tasting room. Look for classic varietals such as Vine Vale Shiraz and King Valley Pinot Gris.
BROKE RD., POKOLBIN; 61-2/4993-3999