Rottnest. It’s a little piece of paradise off the coast of Western Australia. Think Isle of White and then overlay that image with one of Corfu or The Bahamas and you’d be just about there. The colours of Rottnest are blue, mainly blue, grey-green and ochre. It is simply, breath-takingly beautiful.
Private cars are not permitted on Rottnest so visitors walk, bicycle or take the island bus. The atmosphere on the island is one of relaxation and holiday. It is such a different place that it is hard to believe that you are only 25 kilometres from the mainland.
The trouble with places that look like paradise is that very often they feel that they don’t need to try very hard in other respects. Where Rottnest fails (and fails spectacularly) is in the provision of a decent place to eat.
We arrived at Rottnest Lodge on a glorious spring day. The ferry crossing had been smooth and we were in full holiday mode as refugees from the CHOGM-infested city. Upon checking-in, we were asked if we wanted to book a table for dinner as bookings were recommended. As we had agreed to meet friends for our evening meal, I replied in the affirmative and asked for a table for 6 people for 7.30pm.
We had a good day. The kids swam in the pool and then at the beach. We went to the general store and bought snacks for afternoon tea (but not too many, kids, because you don’t want to spoil your dinner). We rested.
At 6.30pm, we went to meet our friends at the Courtroom Bar. I had heard the this bar, which touts itself as the only cocktail bar on the island, did good mojitos so as soon as I got there I ordered one. And it was a good mojito, not problem with that. When my friend, and fellow food blogger, C-A, turned up, she ordered a mojito too. Problem – they were out of mint. It had all gone into the making of my mojito.
The last of the mojitos
I don’t know about you, but I feel that if I were running ‘the only cocktail bar on the island’ and it was Friday night, I’d want to make sure that I had a good stock of garnishes and ingredients. I’d want tiny paper umbrellas and fluorescent straws andmaraschino cherries and pineapple and mint.
It was the first tremor of the earthquake of inefficiency that was about to happen. We sat by the pool for an hour with our drinks (C-A had to make do with a vodka and lime) and then at 7.30pm went over to the area which is Marlin’s Restaurant. If you go to The Lodge's food and beverage web-page, you will see that they begin by claiming that Marlin's is 'the best restaurant on the island'.
The restaurant manager checked for my booking. She shook her head. She sucked in her breath through her teeth. The booking had been made for two people only. I said that I had definitely booked for 6 people. She continued to shake her head while making “I don’t know” noises. It was like having to discuss plumbing with a particularly irksome tradie. Eventually, having put us through this pantomime of gesture and noise for a couple of minutes, she presented her solution. If we would wait a little longer, she would organise a table for us outside in ‘their most requested area’.
Rule of management number one; if you can fix a problem, say so. (And if you are a restaurant manager worth your salt, you will know exactly how full your 'most requested area' is). Don’t play games with your customer by sighing and sucking at your teeth and pretending to scour the seating list and certainly don’t make them feel bad about what is YOUR mistake.
We were hungry and we said we would wait. As it turned out, waiting for and not being waited upon, became quite the theme of the evening.
One waiter came and said he would be back to light our candle. That never happened and, as we were outside in the dark, that is why there are no photos of the food. Another waiter came to take our order. We decided to keep it simple – two plates of toasted bread with dips to start, two tasting plates of emu, crocodile, buffalo and kangaroo for mains. Two kids' meals for my children – nuggets and chips for one, fish and chips for the other. And drinks.
The drinks came, brought to us by Waiter #3. We poured our own. We drank and talked and waited. And waited.
My children are good children but they had not eaten since afternoon tea and they were hungry. The head of my younger son nodded over the iPhone game that we had given him to amuse himself with. My older son, who has autism and who is therefore not so good at diplomacy when he is hungry, started to fuss and say, repeatedly, that he wanted dinner to come.
We finished our drinks. We ordered more. We’d been waiting an hour. I had a look around the restaurant – there were a lot of tables where people were drinking and not eating. I flagged waiter #4 and asked her how long the food would be.
“Oh, it’s only two or three minutes away,” she said, “Um, sorry for the wait,” she added as an afterthought.
Two, then three minutes passed. Eventually, about twenty minutes after we had enquired, the children’s meals arrived and so did our starters delivered by waiter #2.
Now, the fish and chips and nuggets and chips were perfectly adequate, the chips were fat and chunky, crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside. The nuggets were substantial and the fish fillets were a good size and battered lightly. There was lots of salad on the plate.
The bread and dips though were disappointing. Each plate had four triangles of toasted Turkish bread and three bowls of dip. One tomato and chili, one tsatziki and one pesto. The pesto was the worst – it was straight from a jar, the kind you buy when you are too lazy to make your own. Now, in Western Australia in the spring, there is no problem getting hold of fresh basil to make pesto,or there shouldn't be. However, if the Lodge could have a cocktail bar that ran out of mint, it was not so inconceivable that their restaurant might have run out of fresh basil. To serve up stuff out of a jar is a crime, though. If it has to be used at all, it is meant for stirring through pasta and not for dipping bread into. The tsatziki was okay – supermarket yoghurt and cucumber strips, the kind I’d make at home. The tomato and chili was really quite nice – it was sweet and the chili had a good bite –but it still rather smacked of out-of-a-jar.
Question; how long does it take to lightly toast eight pieces of bread and fill six dishes with pre-made dips, assuming you have a professional kitchen to work in? Ninety minutes? I think not.
It was lucky that we were in good company because we had another wait ahead of us for the mains. These were okay too. The meats were served on little skewers and were actually quite tasty. We all commented on the different texture and the juicy quality of the crocodile skewers. The jams and sauces that they had made to go with the dips were also quite nice. C-A and her partner recklessly ordered a bowl of chips from a passing waiter (don’t ask me which one) and we took the opportunity to order the children’s desserts while there was a waiter around.
Again, the chips were delicious! And the desserts arrived on time for the children. (Quokka Crumble, by the way, is just a glorified apple crumble and not a crumble-bestrewn marsupial). Talking of quokkas - Rottnest's famous resident animals with the cute faces - here's a thought, I know there are everywhere on the island and i know they look adorable BUT when it comes down to it, they are flea-covered scavengers, quite verminous, and you should probably keep them out of the 'best restaurant on the island'. All the shops have anti-quokka gates and I suggest that Marlin's invests in some of its own. My older son was extremely bothered by the quokka sniffing for tidbits under his chair.
Cute outdoors but not under your dinner table.
It was late and for the kids, dessert was over. They finished up and went back to watch TV in our room. They had done very well to keep going as long as they had and now they were extremely tired.
We were asked if we wanted coffee and desserts but said no. It was getting on for 10.30pm by this stage and I think that by that time, everyone had had enough of the dining experience.
The bill for the meal came to $236. It really hadn’t been worth it.
We retired back to the cocktail lounge for another drink. Things were looking up when we ordered (and received promptly!) some cheekily-named combinations. The “Thomson’s Bay” was a mix of blue curacao and Sprite; the Whole Lotta Quokkas was a take on a pina colada; Sex Down at Pinkies was equivalent to a tequila sunrise; and the Rottnest Me Crazy was the best one – it was Galliano and ice-cream and perhaps coconut. It was a cocktail dessert.
Thomson's Bay - very blue.
Sex down at Pinkies - is pinkish.
Rottnest Me Crazy - sweet and white and sticky.
A Whole Lotta Quokkas - let's hope there's no fur in there.
The waiter couldn’t help laughing when she brough the drinks over and asked us which was whose and she had to say the names. We laughed too and had fun trying each other’s drinks to see which was the best. We finished them much too quickly and then tried to order another round.
"Sorry, the cocktail bar is closed."
It was 11pm. If we wanted more drinks, we’d have to go around to the Governor’s Bar on the other side of the hotel. This was a shame, as I was just starting to relax and enjoy myself again after the dinner fiasco. We got up and walked around to the other bar. It didn’t have the same atmosphere. It wasn’t meant to. The Governor’s is a sports bar. Its currency is beer and spirits, not cocktails. Its atmosphere is less relaxed and more boisterous, as evinced by the drunken football team (wearing pyjamas with homophobic statements written on the back) who were occupying the bar when we walked in and who could be seen from our table when they decided to collectively wee into the bushes outside the bar.
My question would have to be, if The Governor’s could stay open past 11pm, then why couldn’t the The Courtroom? Once again, we felt that, as guests in The Lodge, we were seriously inconveniencing the staff with our unreasonable demands to consume alcohol and spend money.
I think, as we left, the bar, that I already had the beginnings of this blog entry in my mind. Certainly, when I woke in the morning and returned to Marlin’s for breakfast, I was thinking what I would get to write about a second meal there. Breakfast came as part of our room rate and, having had such a bad experience the evening before, I was curious to see if the restaurant could redeem itself with breakfast.
My heart sank when I saw the rows of steaming bains-marie and heard the word ‘buffet’. Lifting the lids confirmed my worst fears – dried out hashbrowns - 'there's no potato in here' said my 10-year old, 'it's just crust all the way through' - , cheap wrinkled sausages, oily mushrooms, scrambled eggs that had not been scrambled but were just a one huge piece of egg covering the surface of the pan.The cereals, yoghurt and fruit were depressingly quotidien. There was a queue to use the archaic toaster and no knives to be had. We sat down at a table which a waiter cleared but didn’t wipe down so there were toast and croissant crumbs everywhere while we were eating.
The quod room we had booked was the most basic type of accommodation which The Lodge offers, but even then we had still paid $300 for the night. It was a special occasion, out first time staying over night at Rottnest together, thus had we justified the cost. At those prices though, the standard of the morning meal should have been a lot higher.( Just to give you a comparison, at this moment in time, on wotif, you will pay $299 to spend a night at the 5 star Duxton Hotel, $205 for a night at the Hyatt, and a mere $139 for a night at the Hilton.)
Let’s not even begin to talk about the coffee at Marlin's. Let's finish talking about it, full stop.
There are no photographs. I just wanted to get out.
Things were looking up by lunchtime. We went down to Aristos’ seafood restaurant on the waterfront. Fish and chips for $18 per portion, choose from beer-battered, grilled or crumbed. A special on chili mussels at $27 for a serve.
Crumbed at the back, battered at the front.
The hotter, the better.
I enjoyed this meal very much. They did a tasty fish and chips, the chili mussels were superb. But just a few things could have been done differently and made the experience so much better.
First up, when the server asked me how hot I wanted my chili, I said very hot. I love chili – the hotter the better. His response, “Are you sure?”
I hate being asked this question when ordering. Yes, I am sure. That is why I said what I said. I am not some child who needs to be cautioned by mummy when about to make an improvident order. I am not some ignoramus who needs to have the ingredients of a dish explained to me. (Such as the time at a certain Greek restaurant in Subiaco, where the pompous waiter said “Are you sure? Have you ever had it before?” when we ordered a bottle of retsina. Yes, we know what retsina is. If we didn’t, then the description of it on the wine-list would have filled in all the blanks, thanks very much.)
Secondly – I had no idea that there were still restaurants out there that used the evil canned, dried parmesan powder that smelled of vomit and haunted the spag bol of my childhood. But there it was, on top of the chili mussels and in a little bowl beside them. I am only a recent convert to parmesan (I had an epiphany in a restaurant in Canberra, but that’s another story…) and to be taken back to 1976 again was almost too much for me to bear.
A step back in time. Stinky canned parmesan. Plus a glimpse of tiny bread roll.
Finally, when you have a delicious big bowl of super-hot chili mussels (once you have scrapped off the offending parmesan) and there is lots of yummy, burny sauce – don’t be stingy with the bread. One little roll does no favours and makes you look cheap and grudging.
Great food should be part of a great holiday and the places that we visited on Rottnest need to stop taking visitors for granted and to give them some decent food and some decent service. It’s lazy to capitalize on the fantastic view and location. It’s worse to give the impression that because there are limited places to eat on the island, you have a captive audience and you can be as indifferent to their dining comfort as you choose.
That said, it is a gorgeous place. I highly recommend it for a visit and I highly recommend using the free barbecues dotted about the place. I, for one, will be self-catering all the way next time I am there.
Go for the scenery, but don't stay for the food.