With its heritage features and sophisticated yet relaxed atmosphere, the Rigby wouldn’t look out of place in any one of Melbourne’s cooler suburbs.
But this café-cum-cocktail bar and restaurant sits proudly on Maitland’s High Street in regional New South Wales about 30 minutes from the centre of the Hunter Valley wine region.
It’s over 1000km from Maitland to Melbourne’s Fitzroy and its eclectic blend of façade architectures, lively, slick, funky and downright bawdy venues. But if The Rigby – a country gentleman of the Lower Hunter – were to don its Akubra, hitch up its pinstripes and march south to Brunswick Street, it wouldn’t look out of place at all.
Once a stationer’s and ‘fancy goods’ retailer, The Rigby now turns out smooth, Melbourne-style coffees during the day, and crafty cocktails and full-flavour dishes when the sun goes down.
The feeling here is one of comfortable refinement and flattering lighting where groups and couples can come for dinner or drinks.
There’s no stuffiness about The Rigby, and even its menus tend to undersell themselves a little with their brevity. Yet the food and drinks here are at a city level, though served with a friendly aplomb you only find in the country.
The Rigby – a Bourne Identity
The Rigby is the result of the combined efforts of father-and-son team Howard and Nick Bourne.
It’s a fine reflection of Nick’s youthful enthusiasm and perspective, and Howard’s experience and knowledge that 20 years in wine and hospitality bring.
And while the menus might be brief, they’re full of quality – to the point where we couldn’t choose one single dish and went for the tapas/degustation style tasting menu instead.
The Rigby tasting menu
Initially, the tasting menu might not make sense from a culinary standpoint, but from a modern fusion point of view, the flavours and textures all balance.
It’s designed around that purpose rather than worrying about the type of cuisine or the dish’s origins.
Charred sourdough, warm olives and cured meats
A delicious start to the meal, the bread has a lovely smoky flavour, as do the buttery Sicilian olives, but the meats are nothing short of impressive.
We enjoy truffle salami, black squid ink salami, garlicky paprika chorizo and tender prosciutto. The pickled green chillies add spice and cut through the meatiness perfectly.
Fried mozzarella and salsa verde
Squishy, soft and oozy with a salty crispness of the very fine crumb coating make these pieces of fried mozzarella, which were so big we thought they were arancini, absolutely delightful.
The salsa verde does well to balance out the dish and stop it being too savoury.
Prawn dumplings in soy mirin with crispy shallots and fresh red chilli
These dumplings are well made and are good examples of silky wonton. The hint of lemongrass both controls and emphasises the umami of this dish. Delicious.
Buttermilk southern-fried chicken and smoked chilli aioli
Like the mozzarella, the chicken pieces are so delicately seasoned and finely coated, what could have been a rather oily dish allows focus to be on the tender juicy and crispy southern style chicken.
The aioli has pieces of fresh chilli in and is a generous amount, not just dots of sauce on the plate, as is all too often the case.
Mushroom arancini, truffle aioli and parmesan
The arancini are well-cooked and crunchy, but the rice, porcini mushroom and parmesan filling is almost liquid it’s so succulent.
Smoky lamb ribs, tomato relish and crispy breadcrumbs
Out of all of the tasting itinerary, this was the one I was looking forward to most, but which ended up not being our favourite dish. The meat was tender and full of flavour, which matched with the relish and crunch of the bread well.
There was still quite a bit of fat left under the skin, which was a bit chewy, though more braising might have crisped the skin and rendered the fat down.
We had somehow made it to dessert, in spite of being so full. The last dish is normally churros in chocolate sauce, but Howard and Nick had other ideas.
They very generously offered to give us a taste of their other desserts, which they’re understandably proud of.
Poached rhubarb and Chantilly cream
This is the ultimate rhubarb crumble – a dish I haven’t had since I was a boy. And this super-version of a childhood dish has put rhubarb crumble up way higher than it ever was when I was a lad.
The oat crumb with pistachio is simply superb. The sweet custard merges with rhubarb sauce to create a sweet-sour symphony. Honestly one of the best warm desserts we’ve had.
Chocolate marquis with sour cherry and vanilla ice cream
This is a chocolate mousse’s smooth, motorbike-riding, poem-writing big brother. Richer yet lighter and silkier than any mousse we’ve had this comes with crunchy dark chocolate tuiles and white chocolate grated over the top.
Meanwhile the poached sour cherries nested in the mousse have a tenderness and cut-through this rich, powerful dish needs.
This being the Hunter Valley, throughout the dinner we sipped on some excellent wine. Howard’s knowledge of the wine industry and his love of local vineyards inspires the carefully curated list.
I had a glass of the First Creek ‘Regions’ Chardonnay while Jim also had a First Creek wine – a Sangiovese. Excellent examples of the varietals and hugely satisfying.
As dinner continued, we both moved on to a glass of the proffered special – a Vinden Estate Basket Press Shiraz. “Silk in a glass” as Nick so rightly put it.
To say we were full by the end of the evening is an understatement. But to say we’d highly recommend coming here for breakfast, lunch or dinner is even more of one.
From the dark, moody recesses of this heritage 1870s store, the Bourne boys have crafted a place that helps bring Maitland and its surrounding townships right up to date.
It’s places like The Rigby that can turn this part of the Hunter Region into the destination it should be.
For more information on Maitland and the surrounding areas, check out the Visit NSW website.