The d’Arenberg Cube – a delightful folly
I had been looking forward to this experience even before some of our delightful friends gave us a lunch here as a wedding present.
The landscape of the wine-growing district of McLaren Vale in South Australia is known more for its rustic sandstone cottages with rusting iron roofs, than for its contemporary architecture. So when I saw an aresting image of this Rubik inspired cube – without knowing that it even housed a restaurant – I wanted to go there.
Place: d’Arenberg Cube Restaurant
d’Arenberg Winery, McLaren Vale, South Australia
Lunch: Thursday to Sunday (seating from Noon to 2pm) booking essential
Duration: 3 to 4 hours
Wine Tasting: AU$10 to $40 depending on wine experience
Cost: Degustation menu AU$210 ($150/$199 with wine on Thursdays in winter)
Chefs: Brenden Wessels & Lindsay Durr
The degustation menu is $210, optional wine pairings from $95 per person. Every Thursday in Winter, you can enjoy a shortened degustation menu from $150 per person, and $199 with wine.
13 years in the making, the Cube opened in December 2017 on the d’Arenberg Estate. The Osborn family have tended to these vineyards since 1912. Chester Osborn – the fourth generation of the family and their winemaker is the force behind this folly.
What is the Cube?
Well, you might ask. Although the South Australian tourist machine compares it to MONA in Hobart, Tasmania – probably as it was partly built to house an extremely eclectic art collection. Really the two institutions are poles apart. The Cube is quite a small conception compared to MONA which is vast and includes accommodation.
The Cube is more quirky, whereas MONA is artful. MONA is curated, whereas the Cube collection verges on the kitsch. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its delights.
Can’t tell you everything
I’m going to be deliberately coy about some of the contents of the museum because the owners like to preserve some of its mystery, all the more to delight you. I’ll do the same thing with our meal, only revealing a few of the ten or more courses of the degustation menu.
You enter the Cube on the ground floor through a vineyard strewn with sheep and sculpture. This floor houses the ‘Alternate Realities Museum’.
After your welcome and a room I won’t describe, you enter the ‘Flower and Fruits’. This is an olfactory experience, with bottles – some hidden containing various substances for you to smell. These are delivered by what are re-purposed bike horns mounted on bicycle handles.
The room is a quite delightful experience. Some smells are familiar, some mysterious, some pleasant, and some not so much. But all are related to the winemaking experience.
Next, you head into a semi-circular room, with a 360-degree video projection. The visuals are amazing, going from the almost realistic, to the psychedelic. Highly entertaining.
The Cube is currently housing a collection of Dali prints and sculptures. This is a commercial exhibition, as most artworks are parts of editions, and are for sale. It’s not the most arresting collection of Dali’s work, but combine it with the views of the vineyards, and it’s definitely worth visiting.
To enter the exhibition itself is $20 – if you are dining in one of the restaurants, or attending a tasting, then the cost is $10.
We headed up to the 5th floor (the top floor) for a wine tasting as part of our experience. Essentially, we could choose any of the wines from d’Arnberg’s extensive collection. We discussed with the sommelier what styles of wine we liked and tried everything from a sparkling through rieslings, and finally a couple of reds.
Sensibly, we were served glasses with just a sip or two. It meant we could try quite a selection while avoiding becoming ‘tired and emotional’ before heading downstairs for our lunch.
It would be a great addition to have a list of the wines you experienced. OK, I should have made some notes – but I didn’t. A little tasting notes card, or a list of wines to take away would be a great addition to this experience. (Note to d’Arenberg)
Private v Public
One of the difficulties of the customer experience here is that they are trying to run a public and a private venue all at once. So – for instance, we were shown to a semi-private area for our tasting, with our own sommelier. But then a group of people just came in, presuming everything was open to the public and had to be asked to leave, once the private nature of our tasting was explained to them.
This confusion happened again later when the velvet rope was removed from the staircase to take us down to the restaurant, and another group of people bolted down after us and had to be told that this was only for restaurant diners.
Not sure how the owners should solve this – but it does affect the experience.
Not a good place to start
Unfortunately, this did not get off to a good start. I have a food allergy, which our hosts were not aware of, and I (foolishly had not advised prior to our arrival. My bad.
When asked about any dietry requirements, I had to ‘fess up. No problem. However, I was then spoken to like this was a food dislike, rather than an actual, potentially life-threatening allergy. Yep, you guessed it – red rag to a bull. I think I embarrassed my hosts with my firm tone to the waiter.
Now I have been to many fine-dining restaurants, and my allergy has never been a problem, with the kitchen always able to provide alternatives. The Cube soiled their copybook pretty early on in our experience, by telling me that they could not accommodate my allergy, because they had not been notified early enough.
I was a little gobsmacked.
I know restaurants work on tight margins, and try to minimise waste, but are you telling me that despite having a full kitchen and staff you cannot come up with an alternate for 3 dishes ?
I had to work at containing my reaction. My hosts had generously given this gift to us – and I didn’t want to mar it in any way. But my blood was boiling – mainly angry with myself.
I’ll leave you to advise me in the comments if you think my reaction is unreasonable.
This was the only point of discord. A few glasses of the sparkling Polly relaxed us all, ready to enjoy what was to come.
This was the highlight of the experience. It was part taste sensation, part visual feast and part theatrical show.
As evidence: ‘The last grape . . . and its tendrils’ A confection of duck pate balls, coated in grape jelly, accompanied by deep-fried duck skin, on an aromatic bed of star anise. The pate was made to look like grapes on a stem, and you popped these grapes into your mouth, and then crunched on that deep-fried skin. See what I mean about theatrics, taste and visuals?
Several courses later – we had this visually delightful lamb dish
This whole experience of more than 10 courses took over three hours – which the wait staff had warned us it would be. They made it clear that we were in control of the meal, and could take a pause whenever we wanted.
We took advantage of that several times because we wanted to finish a particular wine before we moved on, or wanted to take a break outside on one of the balconies, or, we just needed to stop eating for a while!
The food was wonderful, each dish a sensory delight, some playful, and some serious.
Our penultimate course was the dessert pictured below: Namaleka, citrus, fennel. Made using the only 3D food printer found in an Australian commercial kitchen. An absolute sensation.
The interior of the Cube is extremely quirky – part mad persons collection of memorabilia – sort of like what you would find in an abandoned house. In some parts, there are parades of old Faudlings & Co. bottles (medicine bottles) filled with mysterious liquids, mounted on what looks like parts of old railway sleepers. In other areas, the walls are filled with African and Papua New Guinea masks. Every surface is covered, and sometimes the ceiling – even the stairwell.
And then, of course, there are the famed men’s toilets. For some, it would be the first time they have pissed into someone’s mouth – for some it would be. But then others of us have experienced ‘Troughman‘ (Image and interview: confronting content) the Sydney Mardi Gras.
This is a worthwhile experience. First, you get to visit the vineyards of McLaren Vale, about an hour south of Adelaide, in South Australia. Then you visit an extraordinary piece of architecture and sit in a singular space with more visual stimulation than necessary, and finally, you get to eat and drink wonderful food and wine.
The only experience I have had that would beat this, is dining at Quay, on the harbour in Sydney, where the interior is comparatively pared down with simple but sumptuous lines, and of course the glories of Sydney Harbour