The Mansion Hotel & Spa at Werribee Park
Werribee VIC 3030
+61 3 9731 4130
I love day trips out of the city. Although I consider myself very much a city girl, I love the allure of endless green (well okay, brown) paddocks that stretch for miles and miles next to unending straight highways. I love the smell of fresh air, unmarred by smog, a cocktail of mismatched perfumes and of ‘urban-ness.’ And I love the fact that food from restaurants outside of town taste so much different. So when Adam proposed a day trip one day in July, I was jumping up and down in excitement. But when he suggested “going to Werribee,” that excitement fizzled like a sausage on a BBQ that hadn’t been poked. Werribee. The home of sewerage, Volt 240 nightclub and animals (and I’m not talking about the ones who live in the enclosures of Werribee Zoo either). And Werribee Mansion, our destination for the morning/afternoon. It may only be a mere 30 minutes from the CBD but as you exit the Princes and turn onto K Road, you feel like you’re not in Kansas Melbourne anymore.
Built in 1877, the mansion was owned by the wealthy Chirnside family but is probably more famous for appearing as the backdrop for many ABC Kids’ shows and television commercials. Given the mansion’s beautiful Italianate architecture style and its sprawling gardens, you can see why it attracts thousands of visitors each year.
On the day we visited, Zeus must have had a bad day because heavy clouds loomed over the mansion, threatening rain. This made our exploration of the mansion even more creepy given that there were next to no visitors around on the day, being a dreadfully cold Tuesday and all. After spending some time exploring the various rooms around the mansion (you can imagine how excited I was when I walked into the dining and kitchen areas) and fending off Adam’s “hurry up!”s, we decided to break for lunch…
… but not before visiting the ‘Seminary Years’ exhibition where this fella scared the bejesus out of me when I turned a corner. Of course, it was just a cardboard figure of a trainee priest but far out…
Lunch was at the Mansion Hotel & Spa, a separate building located a short walk from the actual mansion. Formerly St Joseph’s Seminary, the site has since been transformed into a boutique hotel that’s popular as a wedding site or as a place for couples to get away for a weekend.
The restaurant itself, Joseph’s, is situated in a sunny corner of the ground floor just shy of the library. Its sleek but classic decor blended in well with the rest of the modern-style hotel, but its dark oak doors and simple lines provided a respectful nod to the hotel’s origins.
As soon as we walked into the restaurant, the clouds made way for the sun to shine into the dining room. Perfect, we thought.
Things could not have gotten more perfect, we thought, as we were led to a table right by the window where we could admire the scenery while we ate. Of course, when the sun did change positions throughout our lunch, casting a glare on our table which made photo-taking a little bit difficult. Grrr. A $35 two-course plus glass of wine lunch special was being offered so we decided to go with that. Three choices for entree, main and dessert respectively with the option to pay an extra $7 if you wanted to go three courses. We started off with two courses each (an entree and a main), with the option of going back for dessert if we were still hungry.
A glass of Adelaide Hills pinot gris was poured for me (and a shiraz from Adam) while sliced bread pieces were offered, a choice between white, wholemeal and olive.
The bread kept coming to us throughout the course of our meal which was a plus for me. Even better because the bread were poppin’ fresh from the oven and tasted delectable with a hint of sweetness that went well with the olive oil provided.
Adam’s entree: Mansion Caesar salad, an interesting take on the good ol’ Caesar salad which is by no means my favourite salad. That said, I really like the way they took out all the ingredients and arranged them in their non-chopped up forms. I liked the gooey poached egg and the use of a crispy side of prosciutto instead of bacon. A slice of crispy bread stick completed the arrangement, providing a necessary catalyst to soak up the flavours. Having said all that, I think you really do have to be a fan of Caesar salad to fully appreciate this dish.
My entree: Crispy pork with Asian salad. I’m always wary when non-Asian establishments such as this one offer something as indeterminate as an “Asian salad” because they usually taste nothing like a goi ga or a larb or anything like that. And if you happen to work with me, you’ll know that an ‘Asian salad’ served at the cafe next door to us is nothing more than coleslaw greens,shredded chicken breast pieces in a sweet chilli sauce *facepalm* I wasn’t expecting much from this dish but I was surprised to find that it wasn’t too bad. Okay, so it could have done with a little less sugar and a dashing of fish sauce. The fresh, crunchy vegetables and the crispy pork belly pieces did make up for it though but it’s not something I’d order again.
Adam’s main: Braised beef pie, potato foam, mushy peas. We were expecting a proper pie for this one so imagine our bewilderment when this was presented to Adam. All we saw were a saucepan with mashed potatoes, a slice of bread and a bowl of cooked peas which were lazily mashed with a fork. ‘WTF?’ we thought. ‘Where is the pie?’
There it was. Underneath the creamy, soft pillow of mashed potato-ey goodness was a rich, hearty gravy laden with beef mince and lots of tomato flavour. The bread was pretty much the ‘crust’ of the pie which we broke off to dip into the saucepan. It was the perfect meal for such a cold day. It was pretty good. Larry David pretty good.
My main: Fish of the day (which was salmon – it always is), tomato and cucumber salsa and crushed potatoes. Adam’s wonderfully comforting dish was going to be hard to top and although my dish wasn’t too bad, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. The salmon fillet was overcooked and the salsa and crushed potato tower didn’t really add anything to the dish apart from making it look pretty. To me, the three elements didn’t really mesh together and I’m not sure if it’s because the fish was so dry or whether it was just me. I guess the only good thing I can say about the dish is that the salsa was pretty good on its own – very light with a lovely tangy flavour that would otherwise be a successful accompaniment for another dish.
Okay, we were pretty much full at this stage but not quite full enough to leave without having dessert. Plus, I wanted to make up for my lackluster main. Out of the three options on the dessert menu, the vanilla panna cotta, blueberry puree and butter crumble looked the most enticing. I was rewarded with great contrasting flavours and textures, from the sticky, sour blackberry compote to the subtly sweet, silky panna cotta to the crunchy cocoa butter crumble. I savoured it all while Adam tried hard not to bitch about his ‘okay-but-not-good’ short macchiato.
Joseph’s certainly play it safe with their food – this is something that may piss off those who are looking for bells and whistles when they fine-dine but will most likely keep the large group of seniors in the corner happy. I wouldn’t recommend driving here just for the food but certainly give the place a go if you’re going to be at Werribee Park all day doing other things such as wandering around the mansion and going to the zoo. The service was generally pretty attentive as was evident in the way they kept topping up our bread and our water although the fact that there were flies buzzing around the dining room (and the staff didn’t do anything to remove them) might be a cause of concern (in the middle of WINTER, no less). We might have still been in metropolitan Melbourne but sitting by the window, you really couldn’t tell. It was great just to have a long, lazy lunch in totally different surroundings. It was only when we jumped on the Princes again did we realise that *sigh* we were really back in Melbourne.