NOTE: Songbirds is now open only for villa guests, weddings and functions, rather than general public dining. (Dec. 2017)
If there’s one place which truly encapsulates local cuisine, it’s Songbirds. Barely a thirty-minute drive from the centre of the Gold Coast, Songbirds is one of our most lauded restaurants, the winner of numerous awards and even ‘Restaurant of the Year’ within its twenty-year history. Without doubt, it’s one of our most beautiful venues as well. Part of Songbirds Rainforest Retreat, the restaurant showcases local produce, much of it from the Scenic Rim – the best of our seafood, produce and artisan products, as well as hyper-local produce from their own garden.
We wind our way up a rainforest-clad incline to the peaceful and secluded entrance. Already we can feel a Balinese karma, complete as we enter the restaurant, looking out to its 51 acres of grassed lawns, stone sculptures and forest, a culinary oasis in the middle of the rainforest. The cabins which form part of the retreat are discreetly tucked away further up the hill.
The beautiful setting and peacefulness to us dictates a lunchtime visit; a chance to fully observe the surroundings, and its inhabitants. During our visit crimson rosellas, king parrots, kookaburras, finches and bush turkeys are seen in the forest around us.
With the retreat undergoing a rejuvenation, Mathew Fulford has taken over as Head Chef, ably assisted by Joel Grudnoff (ex-The Foraging Quail) as part of the team. After reaching a peak in his profession, working at Stokehouse, qualia (Hamilton island) and Daylesford’s Lakehouse, Mathew tells us that he made a change of direction as a professional golfer. Now he’s back doing what he’s passionate about: cooking ‘real’ food using seasonal wholefood using local and organic produce, combining flavours and textures to not only look beautiful but also to taste amazing.
Sitting on the open veranda, our lunch begins: eight courses of beautifully rendered fine food, served as a tasting menu:
- Pacific oysters with green pickled pumpkin from the kitchen garden
- Mackerel cured in limecello, gel and powder from garden beetroot; cauliflower puree, yuzu and radishes from the garden
- Tempura redclaw cray (from Rob Hutchinson at Tarome) and gyoza with dashi broth scented with turmeric from the garden
- Tamborine slow-cooked egg on jamon iberico with saltbush crisped potatoes
- Local suckling pig with elderflower gel and spiced apple purée
- Venison and mushrooms with master stock and garlic custard
- Duck fat croissant with Witches Chase washed rind cheese, cassis purée and almond praline
- Chocolate rainforest – textures of chocolate with violet ice cream
Our favourite dish? Every single morsel that we try, in presentation and taste is superlative. Exceptional culinary technique is obvious in every dish. Even the relatively bland-looking venison presents a myriad of flavours and textures on the palate – the multifaceted layered flavours of five-year-old master stock, tender young venison, the rich creaminess of garlic custard balanced by the crunch and tangy acidity of vinegar-cured red onion. The Chocolate Rainforest is a jaw-dropping, whimsical wonder.
We sit for a few hours, unhurried and relaxed, enjoying the view and unobtrusive service. Several kookaburras in nearby trees keep a close eye on our food, hopeful of taking advantage of languid morsels left lingering on the plate.
Mat talks to us about his culinary philosophy. He’s a humble chef with private passions; a keen forager and hyper-local producer who wants to keep it real without attitude. In the end, it’s all about cooking real food and presenting it well to customers, he says.
“We grow a lot of our produce in the garden,” he tells us. “We use what we have very well. At present we’re focussing on the spring menu, created around seasonal produce.” He mentions truffles, and I go weak at the knees!
Some dishes are inspired by the retreat’s own garden, while others are products of the staff’s creativity. Joel brings out a Duck fat croissant to our table, the dish he’s been perfecting over several weeks. The team do a lot of charcoal cooking to enhance flavour, with a smoker is on order from the US. Suckling pig one of the first dishes on their ‘must try’ list. Mat tells us that with a keen team in place, they’re levering off each other’s creative energy, making it a kitchen with passion.
“We’re spending time perfecting every dish, looking at it for balance, texture, acidity and crunch. Food should not just be arranged to be a feast for the eyes, but we also need to discover it again on the palate. It should speak for itself with its flavour.
We want this to be a restaurant that attracts people to come here – a destination because of the quality of its food and produce and its good service, rather than a special occasion restaurant.”
Complementing the food, the perspective of the dining area, in situ in the rainforest, gives an ambience that speaks volumes about provenance and food philosophy. Framed by the exotic warmth of Bonnie Rodwell’s signature colour red, our meals stand out like birds of paradise against the surrounding green, where parrots fly from tree to tree and whipbirds whistle in the forest beyond.
We take up owner Bonnie Rodwell’s invitation to stay overnight in one of the retreat’s luxury cabins, getting up early in the morning to visit the kitchen garden. We chase away a paddymelon and numerous bush turkeys we’ve disturbed having an early morning feed.
It’s been a perfect day-long retreat, but of course it’s never long enough. With its stellar cuisine and disarming tranquillity, Songbirds is a venue which needs to be recognised far more widely.
Would we go back and do it all again? In a heartbeat!
Disclaimer: Good Food Gold Coast dined and stayed as guests of Songbirds.
Lot 10, Tamborine Mountain Rd, North Tamborine, Ph: 07 5545 2563
Open for villa guests and functions only. (Dec. 2017)
NOTE: This review has also been published on More Gold Coast. Updated Dec. 2017.