Sunday, May 31, 2009

Russell's Pizza

Russell’s Pizza in Willunga is rumoured to serve spectacular wood-fire pizza. For over a year now I have been curious about the actual existence of the place and lacking the conveyance to get to Willunga, a historic township on the edge of McLaren Vale, about 47 km south of Adelaide it made my quest all the more impossible. Sydney-sider Heather, a fellow gastro-girl equipped with her Hyundai Hybrid offered Kristina, a Canadian with Estonian heritage (a new student also pursuing gastronomy at Cordon Blue, Adelaide) and me to be the designated driver on a gastro-adventure, all of us keen to investigate the actuality of the infamous pizza parlour in the middle of nowhere.
In the quest of handmade thin crust pizza we set out on our trip. After two hours of driving out of Adelaide we hit picturesque Victor Harbour, stopping at a lookout point to get a feel of the coastline and stretch out feet. Victor Harbour is home to fresh seafood and a number of bistros and cafes that are supposed to churn out notable dining experiences. At some point I hope to return to sample the fare and perhaps even swim with the tuna before it hits your plate as I have been told one can do out in the pristine blue waters.
Port Elliot, is a seaside village close to Victor Harbour. With cafes and antique shops along the strand it offers both relaxation at the Horseshoe Bay, with a large beach and safe swimming conditions that are popular with families as well as action, the surfing fraternity well accommodated at Boomer Beach, which lies on the western edge of the town. Heather mentioned the Cockle Train that goes up to nearby Goolwa or Victor Harbour allowing for night viewing of the penguin parade. I’m afraid my to-do on my list keeps growing.

We made a pit-stop at Port Elliot Bakery eager to sample some of the local offerings and warm up with a hot latte. I was intrigued by their enormous version of the German Bienenstich or Bee Sting Cake, a buttery brioche that derives its name from the glazing of honey onto the top of the cake just before baking. A textural delight, the moist cake is sliced into two, inch and half thick slices and stuffed with sweet, yellow custard, the top half crusted with crisp almond flakes, crunchy rolled oats, a delicate sprinkling coconut flakes (ubiquitous on most Australian desserts – it seems to be an obsession Down Under) and the glaze of honey that seals all the crispy, crunchy goodness into place. As you bite into it, snap, the contrasting textures are an absolute adventure for your mouth and the sweetness of the custard just right unlike the sickly sweet confectioners cream stuffed between the sugar doughnut cream-pie Kristina opted for.

From Port Elliot we drove into Willunga and were looking out for a suitable watering hole to enjoy a pre-dinner drink and kill the forty-five minutes we had to spare before our 6.30 pm booking at Russell’s. We stumbled upon the Alma Hotel an institute within the area having been established back in 1856. After all the driving I immediately located the ladies room before making my way back into the pub to re-join my friends who by that time had found a table and grabbed their drink from the bar. In the midst of deciding whether to opt for a glass of sparkling white or a delicious sounding pinot gris by the glass I was interrupted by a scraggly, grey bearded Alaskan nomadic explorer look-a-like with a sun-baked, leathery face topped with a hobo looking beanie with a surf brand scrawled across the front, a tatty parker, scruffy jeans and worn out all terrain boots begins recommending that I try his friend Trevor’s Riesling for $5 by the glass. After small chit chat about Indian curries and gastroenterology as most conversations with know-it all wierdos go and five minutes of arguing with the bar tender to send the ‘regular’ waitress to take his order he finally got it through his thick, greasy beanie and into his brain that they were either out of Trevor’s vintage or his elaborate story was bullshit. I ended up going with the pinot, paying for it and turning to leave to join my friends when he asked if he could join us. Before we knew it, the Arctic freak wanderer was sitting down with us telling us how he was a winemaker, surfer living ‘down in the scrub near Aldinga’. Well by this time Heather, the no-nonsense mid 60 year old nutritionist, and mother of two full grown daughters was beginning to lose her patience, looking at her watch, weaving a story of having to drive into town ASAP to throw ‘the strange bum,’ off our scent and avoid any potential danger. We downed our drinks and left promptly but not before scrubby arctic wanderer gave us tips on how to mow our way down the freeway using our rubber bumpers or cattle guards and simply removing license plates to avoid chargers, should the express way be closed. Handy tips from the local pub lunatic are always pearls of wisdom eh?

The one and only 'sign' that mentions Russell

While I tucked that information into the back of my mind in the event of a freeway emergency, the three of us turned our attention back to the reason for our adventurous trip, trading premonitions of what the pizza experience would entail, preparing ourselves for the meal we were about to partake of. With no signs whatsoever, Russell’s pizza place is a hidden gem that is booked out months together and requires a strategic plan in order to secure a booking. Further to that a navman and a guide sense of direction is mandatory to ensure you reach the place. We entered the unmarked entrance, the number 13 is the only confirmation you are at the right place.

Fairy lights faintly illuminating darkness welcomes you, rickety chairs and wooden benches surrounding stone hearths breathing bright fires warmed huddled groups. It seemed like we were entering a mysterious, secret world, the setting almost reminiscent of the movie set of End of Days were the few remnants of humanity gather around canisters and open fires, the mood almost solemn. The air of sobriety however is a mood that hovers between 6.30 pm and quarter past seven. After 7.30 the place is infiltrated by large groups armed with eski’s (drink coolers on wheels) since the place is BYO, offering only a house red and white and a raucous crowd takes over the joint. Upon arrival we walked straight into what I assumed was the kitchen, politely asking if I could enter eager to catch the pizza process in action. But in fact it is an ’open kitchen’ cum front office to place your orders, customers reading the menu that swirls around in colourful, artwork upon a blackboard above the wood-fire oven.

Pizza dough is being rolled in one corner, Napolitano sauce smothered on bases in another corner, and assembled with toppings, long paddles shift bases and cooked pizza’s back and forth over and around staff and customers that gaze at the colourful swirl of a menu, hard-pressed to make a decision. The atmosphere is alive and the pizza looks amazing, I am ecstatic about the meal I am about to receive as we make out way to our table outside.

Usually I am fussy about seating outside, (ok, I have to admit I am fussy and uptight about most things when it comes to food) particularly when it is the onset of winter and 10 degrees C. But tucking my sweater over the palms of my hands and doubled over trying to retain optimum body warmth envisioning the pizza it felt like an adventure, having to earn my feed. We opted to go with the two courses, starter and main for $37 per head.

Out comes a anti-pasti platter of crusty sour-dough bread, roasted veggies: red peppers, carrot, green beans, Kalamata olives, three lumps of feta cheese, liquid gold – a luscious straw hued olive oil with a peppery kick, dukkah with pistachio hints and toasted almonds that were unlike anything I have tasted anywhere else – bursting with flavour.

Having cleared every morsel of the starter platter we sipped on house red taking the place in. Next up three succulent lamb koftas with a fresh mint-yoghurt (could have been punchier with more mint, but hey).

We decided to do one large and one small pizza. The large we did two ways, one half with generous torn basil, Italian herbs, buffalo mozzarella and the other half with fresh, tender king prawns, perfectly cooked squid legs and a single oyster. It came out on a unfolded cardboard box, no cutlery, no plates and we dug in, enjoyed it thoroughly and only realised the former were missing halfway through relishing the squares of pizza and wiping tomato sauce and crumbs from around our mouths. Sometimes going back to the basics makes for a real treat.

The smaller pizza was distributed with chunks of grilled lamb with Mediterranean-Indian flavours cucumber and tomatoes raita adorning the top. Although perhaps the most drastic pizza topping I have ever sampled, and perhaps not a personal choice it was interesting and absolutely delicious.

Having enjoyed Russell’s pizza I can now put the rumours to rest, it is alive and kicking – truly offering a unique experience with top notch wood-fire pizzas. I officially stamp it South Australia’s best place for pizza pie!

Russell's on Urbanspoon


Miss.Katie said...

I have been wanting to go to Russells for a couple of years now, Wakefield press came out with a great book on making your own wood oven, Russells features heavily in this, great post btw:)

Shantanu said...

Like the deep-blue color of the sea in the distance. Nothing like a good wood-fired pizza sometimes.

Shantanu said...

And what's with all the attacks on Indians in your part of the world? That is all we hear about Australia in India now-a-days.

Sameer said...

loved this article babe....the pics look yummy :)

MEGalomaniac said...

@ Katie, It is totally worth the effort and drive to get there.

@ Shantanu, No media coverage of any of the attacks here in Oz. I myself am trying to make sense of how serious the situation really is

@ Sameer, if only your computer screen tasted of pizza!

Cari said...

Loved the post babe! hahahahaha Heather's reaction to the Arctic freak wanderer cracked me up. Still searching for a perfect pie here in St Auggie...

boozy.susie said...

Wow great post,

Russells sounds fantastic I'll definatly be checking it out.