When you see a really good chef head to a place that’s well, a bit off the beaten track, then you think, ‘yeah, that may be worth a try!’ And when we’re talking about Steve Cumper taking over the kitchen at the Fern Tree Tavern, then that’s a must do.
Fern Tree Tavern? That funny little old pub that’s been there forever on the slopes of our Kunanyi/Mt. Wellington (so good they named it twice, yeah?), that stands, sentinel like, at the entrance to a plethora of great mountain and bush walks? Yes, that’s the one.
It’s a pub that’s held on to its retro roots for a long time, and almost bathes in the glory of yesteryear. Is it 1960s? 1970s? 1980s? Hmmm, all of the above and more. Unpretentious, rough, with a side bar/lounge that absolutely was rocking with a great band on the Sunday we went, this place has a charm all its own.
The entrance is welcoming – the furniture looks like it’s been picked up at various opportunity shops around the traps, and the make-shift coffee station at the end of the bar speaks volumes about the determination to keep this place true to its roots and not get too fancy. Fancy it isn’t. And thank goodness for that.
This particular Sunday was sunny, not too cool, so we chose to sit out the front on wooden picnic style tables and head in to order at the bar. The menu? Brief but varied enough to please almost anyone, with a selection of Nibbles, Children’s Meals, Smaller Plates and then Larger Plates, which still only stretched to a maximum of $30 for a big serve of Steak, Chips and Salad.
There’s plenty of vegan and vego options to please those on a mission, and a real, imaginative mix of flavours, textures and produce. We had to try the Potato Cakes with spiced tomato relish, at $9 cheaper than Agrarian Kitchen and leagues better. Crisp, tasty, greaseless. Onwards!
A couple of us had to have the Gnocchi, Gorgonzola, walnut crumble with red wine treacle, at $24 an absolute slam dunk of a dish that had pillow soft gnocchi with a rich, tasty cheese and walnut sauce that had us scraping the plates. One of us had a Lentil Bourguignon + Green Goddess salsa at $22 that was nice, but not soul inspiring, and the fried calamari with smoked jalapeno mayo and rocket at $16 made up for that with big punch flavours and crisp textures.
The fried artichokes with whipped fetta $15 was inspired, and we vowed to go back for the Slow Roasted Onion and Cheddar Tart with Dressed Rocket at $15. If it’s still on the menu. Chef Steve likes to play, so I am sure the menu will change with his whims and produce on the day.
We saw a lot of large plates heading out with Roast of the Day with all the trimmings at $26 fantastic value, and so good to see the old favourites still available without being too tricked up and fussed with.
We wandered after that little lot to a table inside, where the fire was burning, the atmosphere cosy, and the cake display spread across two tables and a cabinet, just in case you haven’t had enough calories for the day. Why not? We said. We tucked into a delicious butter sponge with strawberries, cream and jam that would please the most difficult Royal show judge, and a Chocolate Mud cake that stumped our big eater. I think they were $7.50. Bargain.
The sounds of bar glasses and great band music drew us into the side room where it was all happening, and leaning over a table we caught our breath (or our stomachs) and watched the happy crowd.
Ultimately, the Fern Tree Tavern is one of those places that is like stepping back in time, but with a chef who is now, and very much on the money. The natural bush surroundings, the unpretentious and quirky décor just add to the pleasure to be had in a visit. Just don’t leave it too long. These places need to be treasured.