Modern food with an old world twist

31 Jul, 2011 03:00 AM
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Multi award-winning chef Steve Reagan is passionate about his iconic Newtown House restaurant. The original Abbey family home was built in 1851.
Multi award-winning chef Steve Reagan is passionate about his iconic Newtown House restaurant. The original Abbey family home was built in 1851.

THE iconic Newtown House, Vasse, has played a few roles in its 160 years and there are now four strings to its bow - a restaurant, functions and catering, accommodation and homemade preserves.

As the name suggests it was built as a family home by Irish free settlers Thomas and Maryanne Abbey, who with their twin sons, first settled at Australind in 1841, before moving to Vasse.

They farmed potatoes and ran a dairy on the 32 hectares and built the three room, timber and brick home in 1851, using local Broadwater bricks which were later limestone rendered.

Newtown House served as the Vasse Post Office for a time, as part of a horse stud and then tea rooms, before being subdivided in 1991.

Its latest incarnation has seen it lovingly restored and operating as a multi award-winning fine dining restaurant for the last 20 years.

Chef Steve Reagan, his wife Barbara and three sons, moved for lifestyle reasons to the South West from Perth in 1985, when there were "no kerbs and no traffic lights."

It followed years as a hotel food and beverage manager and 10 years as the chef running his own restaurant, The Establishment, in Wellington Street in the city and later Nedlands.

Family-unfriendly working hours finally called for a change of pace.

Although never formally trained as a chef, Steve always had a love of food, of cooking cultures and methods and of the creative flair, especially French cuisine.

"I read cookbooks like story books and loved the history of food," he said.

"We sought to be different from the start at The Establishment and serve something special and unique but met with some challenges.

"Like when we served our chicken boned out and people wanted to know where the bones were because chicken should have bones.

"It took a bit to change diners' perceptions from the prawn cocktail, half chicken and chips and enormous portions mentality of the time.

"We thought food and dining out should be an art form like going to the theatre for a night of entertainment so we introduced the four course set menu with choices.

"You don't go to the theatre and turn up half way through, you do the full performance."

Although the set course menu is now optional at Newtown House restaurant, the same theatrics and flair and unrelenting push for quality in the food offered still exists.

"We make our own pastry, pastas, condiments, everything from scratch," Steve said.

A natural extension of the home-made approach has been the range of quality Newtown preserves and sauces, which can be purchased in the restaurant foyer.

This year for the first time, Steve extended his culinary array to olive oil made from olives grown on the property - another special treat for diners and also available for purchase.

Testimony to the quality of the food, the walls are adorned with culinary awards and in 2011 Newtown House made both Gourmet Traveller and WA Good Food Guide's regional top 10 lists as well as being voted WA's best BYO country restaurant in the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association Awards.

A champion of using fresh local produce, Steve says that has been one of the biggest changes in his time at Vasse.

Rising land values and population explosion, in part influenced by viticulture, has forced out a lot of the traditional local fruit and vegetable suppliers, forcing him to cast the net wider to source fresh farm produce.

"We used to get asparagus from Vasse and vegetables off a local organic grower but they are both gone," Steve said.

"Now it's Torbay asparagus, Witchcliffe pork, Margaret River venison, Albany duck and Tasmanian and North West seafood."

His interest in promoting WA produce has taken him around the world including spending two weeks at Selfridges in Manchester and London with fellow chefs Chris Taylor and Don Hancey in 1999 and 2000.

And he was involved with Tasting Australia with Ian Parmenter in the early days.

As a bit of a traditionalist, he's not a great fan of television's commercialisation and oversimplification of creating masterpiece dishes, especially the perception that something amazing can be whipped up in a half hour show.

"It waters down the physics, chemistry and science of food and of methods created over generations," Steve said.

Adding to the history and something few stand-alone restaurants can offer is the third string to the Newtown bow.

The Reagans have on-site accommodation situated adjacent to the restaurant for those wanting to dine and stay the night or those seeking a special weekend or few days away.

The two-storey building is an exact replica of the oldest house in Busselton, Prospect Villa, built by James Chapman in 1844.

The exterior is the only connection to yesteryear with the interior modern, cosy, inviting and with the three queen and one king-size twin rooms all having their own ensuites.

Newtown House and its grounds have been used for a range of private and public functions with weddings one of the most popular.

Given the demand for Steve's culinary talents he often caters for off-site functions, whether on people's properties or in public venues.

But few can boast the charm and character the Newtown House precinct offers.

Whether you're dining or staying one thing is for sure, your experience will be memorable.

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