Wild Oak (Olinda) needs to focus on the kitchen

Bring your wallet, but leave your palate at home… seemed to be the theme of Dandenong ranges dining…

I generally prefer not to write scathing reviews of restaurants, on the theory that everyone has a bad night, and if it happens to have been the night I came, well, bad luck for me, but it would be unfair to slam the place on one tasting. I am about to break that tradition, because the food we were served at Wild Oak in Olinda was so bad it had absolutely no place being served. To ask a diner to pay for what was on the plates in front of us was the height of egregious poor form.

From the beginning then. When researching places to eat in the Dandenong ranges, I came across a number of recommendations for Wild Oak. The chef, Ben Higgs, seems to be highly regarded (though I later realised that a lot of my opinion was formed from his own PR), and promotes himself and his restaurant as showcasing the best of seasonal, regional produce. Excellent, we said, and had a look at the website. I saw that Ben runs cooking classes, and had a browse through the offerings: Moroccan Made Easy, Vietnamese Master Class, Sushi Master Class, Tapas and Pasta Class were just a few on the extensive list. Wow, apparently this guy can teach you how to cook the whole world, I joked, and decided against checking availability. I wonder what his actual speciality is, I wondered…

After a gentle stroll from our lovely B&B to the restaurant, we arrived excited to see what the hills had to offer. As we approached the building, I noted that the cooking class kitchen is in a sort of fishbowl at the front of the restaurant, and the word ‘ego’ came to mind. I quashed those thoughts in anticipation of a nice meal of local ingredients. The restaurant was busy, and staff were very attentive. Not only were we seated quickly, the second our bottoms hit the seat a waitress appeared with a complimentary starter. Lucky us, we thought, until I looked at the plate…

Two slices of tuna and pumpkin nori roll, served on a mango and red onion salsa, on top of what we think was a balsamic reduction (the waitress didn’t know). It looked like con-fusion on the plate, exacerbated by a) only having a knife and fork, and b) the fact that the rice appeared to be a solid mass. Ah, I thought, he’s being clever, and that white stuff is not actually rice. Reluctantly prodding at the roll with my fork, I managed to separate a grain of rice from the rest of the glutinous mass. Good lord, it’s rice. (Reminder: Ben teaches a Sushi Master Class.) I don’t believe you should criticise food you you haven’t tasted or books you haven’t read, so I took the plunge, and promptly wished I had a different rule about criticism. It was not just as bad as it looked, but worse, with its gluey mass of starch, tasteless filling, inappropriate mango and red onion, and totally unnecessary balsamic (?). Oh, and somewhere in there was some more starch in the form of individual corn kernels. Yuck.

I cautioned Stuart to order conservatively now that we had insight into what was on offer. A waitress took our wine order and told us she was exhausted as they had catered a 60th that day for 90 guests. We commiserated, ordered a bottle of wine, and made quiet jokes about the menus in front of us, mine splattered with the detritus of someone else’s meal. I haven’t even complained yet, and they’re already spitting in my food, ha ha.

For entree, we decided to go with the special on offer, a tapas plate (reminder: Ben also teaches a Tapas class), though I did mention to Stuart that the titles of the dishes weren’t promising: Atlantic salmon rillette (we’re pretty far from the Atlantic…), duck liver pate encroute, warm marinated olives (what sort? Marinated with what? Why warm?), wild mushroom and basil frittata, and Spanish chorizo sausage with aiolili [sic]. Hoping that Ben wasn’t the one writing the menu with such poor descriptors, typos, and splatters, we soldiered on, thinking he may want to work on his PR at this stage…

And so the tapas arrived. We gazed at the plate, trying at first to discern which was the rillette and which the frittata in the dim light. Poking what was in fact the rillette with my knife, I discovered it was very difficult to actually cut through the butter on top, and insisted that Stuart experience this misery. We then proceeded to taste each item, discussing our newfound intention to simply leave, but wanting to be fair and taste the tapas. The rillette, served without any little toasts or bread, was indescribably bad. It tasted of tinned salmon, and appeared to have been sitting in a fridge for quite some time. It dawned on us that we were probably eating the leftovers from today’s function, which would explain the disastrous ‘complimentary starter’. The frittata similarly did not taste at all fresh, was cold, and was apparently devoid of seasoning. The pitted olives appeared to have come from a jar, been tossed in a mild vinaigrette and then warmed in the microwave. The pate tasted fine, but was not so much ‘en croute’ as ‘on a fluffy bit of foccacia’ & doused in a sickly sweet sauce, and the mild chorizo was okay, but served with a huge blob of rather bland aioli the texture of Miracle Whip.

Time to go. I appealed to our friendly young waitress, and told her I was very sorry to put her on the spot, but that we wanted to leave without our mains. The poor thing looked politely horrified, and asked what the matter was. I gently explained that the food was awful, but that we were happy to pay for our bottle of wine and take it with us. She spoke to Ben, who all the while was working hard directly in front of me in the open kitchen. He glanced at us, after which the waitress returned and said they wouldn’t charge us for the entree, and that she was sorry. Ben didn’t come over to speak to us, nor was there an apology from the kitchen. We paid, left, and got a takeaway pizza from around the corner, which we took back to our cottage and had with our very expensive bottle of wine (it’s one thing to pay $36 for a bottle in a restaurant, another to take it away…). The pizza was pretty good.

I like to think that had we waited for our mains, which would have been cooked by Ben, that they would have made up for the earlier dishes. But unfortunately, he’s allowing things to come out of his kitchen that are bad enough to drive people away without waiting to see. The extensive PR work Ben’s done on his website, with the classes, tours, speaking engagements, etc, ad nauseum won’t make up for dropping the ball in the kitchen, which is where it really counts.

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

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