Now tell me,’ says The Henry Austin’s owner, Max Mason, ‘what was the worst part of your meal.’ Flummoxed by the question and thoroughly impressed by the quality of the food I have no appropriate answer. Mason maintains the air of an affable eccentric Englishman who bestows both excellent crisp service with a touch of well-mannered domination. ‘Good you are,’ he says. ‘Good you are.’
The Henry Austin feels like old Adelaide – a club-like restaurant found at the end of a steep wooden staircase in an old red-brick warehouse, a short saunter from Hindmarsh Square. It was until 2012 Chesser Cellars, an Adelaide institution for 48 years. An old wine list on the bar still advertises vermouth at 45 cents a glass.
With its large windows, their wooden frames painted black, looking out onto a narrow laneway with stone buildings, the space feels more like Edinburgh or Bruges than colonial Australia.
Inside it’s a beautiful mismatch of wood and marble topped tables, wooden chairs and benches topped with soft cowhide. There are several spaces including a larger dining room and cosy tables for two near the deco-inspired carved oak, brass lined bar. The melange is melodious.
Depending on the time of day, start at the HA Bar, below street level. Try a handcrafted cocktail using great Australian spirits and sit on the couch or wander the cellar. Buy a bottle for later or order one for upstairs with your meal (the markup is very reasonable).
The food captures the zeitgeist of modern Adelaide cuisine where local produce and Australian bush food are intelligently married in full-flavoured dishes. You might see the delicate flesh of Spencer Gulf swimmer crab formed into a ring topped with lilly pilly, the sharp-flavoured, violet-coloured native fruit contrasting with the rich white crab meat. Service is casual and affable, perhaps settling you into a naturally made Adelaide Hills cabernet. That will work perfectly with slices of soft, unctuous barbequed ox tongue nestling alongside meaty slices of foraged pine mushroom and sheets of seasoned kohlrabi, melded by a bright green herb sauce, acidic with NT green ants. It’s a favourite place of Adelaide beef baron Richard Gunner who supplies the house with his exquisite 40-day dry-aged English Longhorn beef. Dishes change frequently and you have a choice of an eight course $65 degustation or the 15 course, $90 degustation.
The Henry Austin blends old and new, native food with European classics, experimental and comfortable with truly interesting wines both local and from further afield. This is a modern classic.
Sadly, this week The Henry Austin announced its closing.