Paul Rush finds that dining in a Queensland mountain retreat with an avian symphony hits the high note.
My gourmet table amid the rainforest is surrounded by vivid green fernery and dappled with soft evening light. I sit in blissful peace listening to the distant murmurings of wompoo pigeons high in the canopy; heralding the witching time of night with their haunting onomatopoeic call.
Two unruly bundles of white feathers that Aborigines call kookaburra, sit on a nearby branch and mock me with an infectious chuckle that brings a smile to my face. Their cackling call is the signature sound of the Australian bush and I find them pleasantly sociable and engaging as dining companions.
Suddenly a flight of bright-eyed parrots swoop down from the treetops in a flash of crimson, squeaking excitedly as they crowd the newly filled feeding trays around the open-air dining room.
Songbirds Rainforest Retreat on Tamborine Mountain in the Gold Coast hinterland is one of those romantic hideaways where the crisp mountain air and the silver notes of the native songbirds are as pure and refined as a silver tray service.
The 100-seat licensed restaurant is situated on a wide covered verandah, open on one side to the surrounding vegetation. The room has an expansive al fresco feel, which is enhanced by long banquettes topped with chilli-red and chocolate brown cushions.
A waiter brings the dinner menu and wine list. I choose a crisp, fruity white wine to accompany the 'Three Tastes of the Sea' entrée; a cerviche of scallops in blood-orange oil, tempura Kangaroo Island crayfish with wasabi aioli and Thai sashimi of kingfish.
The entrée menu also features organic soft shell crab, which is farmed in Hervey Bay and is a short but novel taste sensation. Not all Queensland chefs favour it, preferring the more substantial and sweeter spanner crabs combined with a Thai starter salad using pawpaw, mango and coriander.
The origins of soft shell crab can be traced to Louisianna where the crunchy taste was a feature of Cajun cuisine. At Songbirds it's often served on an organic vegetable and Vietnamese rice-paper roll with green-chilli dip.
Songbirds owner, Bonnie Rodwell, joins me and explains how the retreat was created by lovers for lovers.
"There are six spacious villas here amidst an enchanting eucalypt forest and every day is Valentines' day. Romance blossoms like frangipani and hibiscus flowers in spring."
Bonnie is a "can-do" kind of Kiwi from Kerikeri. She built a successful business in the 1980s designing woolly jumpers under the brand name BONZ. It all began when an American lady approached her at Auckland Airport and offered to buy the hand-knitted sweater off her back.
This sale gave Bonnie the idea for a business, and she has since sold countless woollen jerseys featuring eye-catching graphics of local icons like kiwis, sheep and koalas. She continues to run the business along with Songbirds Retreat.
Two plump brush turkeys strut ostentatiously across the lawn as I'm ordering the mains course, a sirloin of wagyu beef on Jerusalem artichoke and potatoes galette, buttered baby spinach, oxtail and mushroom dumpling with bordelaise sauce. I'm impressed with both the presentation and the melt-in-the-mouth taste.
The chef de cuisine combines classic French, European and Asian techniques with the unique Queensland ingredients like fresh seasonal fruits and organic produce. Game and seafood feature prominently on the menu.
He explains that Bonnie sets a high standard for her restaurant and 80 per cent of ingredients must be grown organically. There is an increasing trend towards vegetarian meals and the staff go out of their way to cater for patrons who are glucose or lactose intolerant. Today's menu features polenta crumbed artichoke heart on lentils, peperonata, wilted spinach and sauce vierge.
When my dessert course arrives I know for sure why Songbirds is so popular that everyone is singing its praises. The chocolate soufflé pudding is served with toasted almond ice cream and caramel sauce and is truly delicious.
A meal of this quality in such lush tropical surroundings complete with an avian chorus is a rare treat. It is well worth the 30-minute drive up Mount Tamborine from the Gold Coast beaches. The Queensland tourism and hospitality authorities think so too as the restaurant has won many awards since Bonnie Rodwell added her magic touch to the property in December 2004.
Songbirds is taking restaurant dining to new heights with a complete feast for the senses in its pristine rainforest hideaway. This owner who began with woolly jumpers now finds fulfillment in running a luxury retreat and restaurant that is among Queensland's best.
On the Gold Coast the locals call her a "bonzer businesswoman" who's right on song for the top restaurant awards.
* Paul Rush travelled to the Gold Coast courtesy of Tourism Queensland.
Songbirds is 30 minutes drive from the Gold Coast beaches and one hour from Brisbane.
Accommodation is in private villas set among towering rainforest and lush tropical plants.
Wines are from Australia, New Zealand and France, supplied by the glass or bottles.
- nzherald.co.nzBy Paul Rush Email Paul