The casual but classy setting and imaginative use of locally grown ingredients make Moonacres Kitchen a must for daytime dining. And then there are the farming principles behind the food and the plans for much more.
It’s just past midday on a midweek day and Moonacres Kitchen in Robertson is pumping. Welcomed by the friendly waiting staff we take a seat in the whirring body of this cafe restaurant. Nine tables, approximately 30 bums on seats. Not bad at all for a Thursday lunch. Alex, the young barista, is doing a roaring trade as locals such as actor John Waters come in to grab a caffeine fix. Dougal, the bread chef, comes in from the ovens next door with a new load of sourdough. Through the kitchen hatch, head chef Steve Santucci and his sous are hard at work, but not in that manic chef way.
Instead, this place has a lovely relaxed vibe that seems to come from Steve’s easy energy and manner. Formerly head chef at acclaimed Vini in Sydney’s Surry Hills, Steve makes food that takes some inspiration from his Italian parents and has la dolce vita down pat.
Phil Lavers, the farmer and the co brains behind Moonacres Kitchen, is here too. A former banker who left behind the world of finance and money, he and wife Lisa and their children moved from Tokyo to Fitzroy Falls in 2006 to invest their souls in the earth. Regular Highlands market goers will recognise the unassuming Phil from the years he has spent selling his organic fruit and veg grown on his Fitzroy Falls property, Moonacres.
Moonacres Kitchen opened last year, more than a decade after Phil first started farming at Fitzroy Falls. A novice back then to the world of agribusiness and growing and veg, Phil is now an award winning organic farmer, also busy overseeing the ongoing success of Moonacres Kitchen. This includes a major renovation to these premises before its grand opening in June last year, and the planned opening of Moonacres Cooking School at the newly opened SHAC up the road this September. The cooking school will hold regular cooking lessons, some run by Steve’s local and Sydney chef friends, using the goods of local producers including Moonacre Farm’s, and focusing on Phil’s ongoing quest to teach us about soil health and sustainable farming methods.
‘I have no doubt the food Steve serves here wouldn’t taste as good as it does without the soil we have cultivated at Moonacres Farm,’ says Phil, looking around at his restaurant full of happy eaters. ‘I also believe that unless people learn how and why to look after the soil, we are in very big trouble.’
Phil departs, leaving us to anticipate our lunch in a very pleasant place to sit. For one, the acoustics are great; thought has been given to design and materials used, and there is no yelling foghorn leghorn like across tables. There is a selection of breads and pastries to eyeball near the barista, and a great clear inbuilt viewing window where prosciutto and capocollo (dry cured pork neck) done inhouse hang drying. There are jars of Moonacres homemade preserves and pickles on display, an ever changing menu that reflects the seasons and local produce, and a specials board. It’s torture for hungry eyes.
Our lunch arrives thanks to staffer Allie, who brought her foodie talents here after running Rockabellas Roadside Diner up the road for some years. Steve has sent out four dishes for us: the Amber Salad, Baked Eggs with Chorizo, Soup of the Day with house made bread and butter, and a selection of Prosciutto and Capocollo cooked overnight in stock and served with Robertson figs pickled in mustard with Pecora Mountain Blue, made by Cressida and Michael McNamara at nearby Pecora Dairy.
The Amber Salad is made up of pumpkin and carrots from Moonacres Farm, with pearl barley, pecorino fresco from longtime local outlet and wholesaler Highlands Fresh, hazelnuts grown at Filbert Farm in Exeter, and salad mix by local growers Sam and Elizabeth at Brillig Farm, also in Exeter. It is a winter delight on a fresh day. Presented in the skin of the pumpkin like a tarted up fluorescent spud and served with an orange dressing, it is a very moreish delicious dish.
The soup is sweetcorn and sage with pimento sour cream, topped with rapa, an Italian green. It is comforting with a kick thanks to the pimento. I can’t eat enough of the home made cured meats, with the sweetness of the figs offset by the edge of the mustard and the local blue cheese. Perfect for a wintry share plate. The baked eggs from nearby free to roam Jamberoo Mountain Farm are served with passata and tomatoes from nearby Living Earth Farm and chorizo made at the most excellent Taluca Park Free Range in Exeter. It is a lunch to savour, with Steve using what he has to hand on any given day in such innovative and deceivingly simple ways.
‘We are pretty thrilled how it’s been going since we opened last year,’ says smiley Steve, as he comes over to give me the rundown on the local producers who all helped make our lunch so memorable.
‘Yeah it’s been really great and it’s very exciting now with our plans for our cooking school, which will definitely be a first in the Highlands. It will be one of the few cooking schools in Australia, certainly NSW run by a working certified organic farm. I’ll be doing some of the teaching there and so will some of my fellow chefs. There’s lots to look forward to and work towards.’
Moonacres is a restaurant bound to win its own accolades. Big on growing and supporting local, it wears its heart and earthiness on its sleeve, and that’s definitely good for the soil and the soul.
Moonacres Kitchen, 81 Illawarra Highway, Robertson
Open for coffee, breakfast and lunch seven days, 6am-3.30pm.