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Darley's Restaurant, Lilianfels

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It's hard to know where to start, when trying to explain the magic that is Darley's. Is it the elegant ambience of the century-old building once the stately home of Frederick Darley, the sixth Chief Justice of NSW, for whom the restaurant is named?

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Or is it something more recent? Something to do with polished service, a well-groomed wine list, or the food?

Ah, yes, let's cut to the chase and explore Executive Chef Carl Middleton's food. He has been at the stoves here for about 18 months, and is delighting in playing with the produce of the area. After all Lilianfels is sited almost at the top of the Great Dividing Range and can legitimately call on produce from the mountains and Sydney Basin as well as the nearer areas to the west such as Orange and Mudgee. Carl Middleton has, as it were the best of both worlds.

The night we visit the area is wrapped in a comfy doona of fog. And that's the other thing about dining at Darley's. The cooler mountain climate and clean air, and the fact you may have bushwalked all day*, sharpens appetites and makes that crackling open fire in the dining room even more appreciated.

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The menu is one of those that awakens the glutton, or at least the food-explorer in me. I want that, and that, and that... but settle instead for a spiced and braised pheasant pastia to begin with. The shredded meat from the leg mixed with minute lentils is enclosed in a triangle of pastry that is topped with curls of carrot and beet and smoked pheasant strips and is delicious. If the word 'pastia' is troubling you, think of the Middle Eastern bistilla where meat is wrapped in thin brik pastry.

My partner has soft-boiled (free range) quail eggs and home-smoked salmon with emerald gribiche sauce, a light and colourful prelude to his meal.

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He followed this with a rolled saddle of lamb. But not just any lamb. This was new season spring lamb which had been rolled around tapenade and then sliced and placed on a pool of pea puree with peas and some more Gibson Grove olives to accent the olive-y flavour from the saddle. He was quiet for a long time as he ate, and then finally announced when he had all but licked the plate clean, "that's the best lamb dish I have ever eaten!". 

My main was equally good, but very different. Ever the food adventurer, I bypassed other menu items: john dory mulloway, marble score 7 wagyu (sirloin too!), and a Jannei goat cheeses soufflé. My choice was one I needed to taste to understand: lavender and black pepper crusted venison backstrap, celeriac, purple onions, kale and (here's the clincher) mulberries. The latter I am told later are from the garden. As are many of the other herbs and vegetables used in the kitchen, making this a very local menu. 

I loved the sound of my dish. All those purplish things seems to colour-scheme well, so surely the taste-scheming should work well too? They did. Chef Middleton has a sure palate. He is not out to shock and awe. He wants his diners to feel nurtured and nourished. But he is not afraid to think outside the classic recipe.

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For me, the mulberries made the dish, their rich sweet purple-ness complementing the deep flavours of the venison with its crunchy crust. The slippery-soft mauve onions a colour-coordinated accent, like silk gloves that are vital to complement a special outfit.

We have dined at the multi-award-winning Darley's several times over the years, in the dining room as well as the glassed-in veranda overlooking the gardens and pool, and loved it in every season. There's something about a place with so much history, so many stories to tell.

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Best of all these tales are still being written - but this time, they're being told on the menu - and the very clean plates returning to the kitchen at each meal.

Lilianfels Blue Mountains Resort & Spa, Lilianfels Avenue, Katoomba, NSW, a la carte or tasting menu, licensed, bookings essential. Dinner Monday to Saturday, +61 02 4780 1200, http://www.lilianfels.com.au/Dine/darleys.html

(*well all right, more likely you've been exploring local shopping and cafes)

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