A typical good restaurant tries to provide balance in flavours and textures across the three courses on offer each night. Most of our guests stay for 7 to 10 days so we need to offer a balanced food experience over multiple courses for multiple days. We love serving rich ‘restaurant’ food based on classic French or Italian methods, but then we follow it up the next day with perfect sushi, tataki of kingfish or a Vietnamese pho. A week at Pinetrees is a food journey that many of our guests return to experience every year.
Lord Howe Island is small land mass in the Pacific Ocean, so our signature food is local fish. The preferred species is kingfish. Some guests choose kingfish every meal during their stay. With years of practice, we cook it perfectly using just about every method you can think of. Just recently our chefs were experimenting with different ‘warm smoke’ combinations to infuse a range of subtle flavours, while keeping the fish tender and moist.
Pinetrees is also famous for serving real milk to our guests – we’ve done this for five generations! We have cows in our back paddock and they’re milked twice a day. The milk is pasteurised but not homogenised, so you have to stir a layer of cream through the milk before you serve it. We even take our guests to watch the cows being milked and then serve the milk for breakfast. It’s one of the memorable experiences our regular guests talk about. Sadly, we were recently required to stop serving our milk to guests due to bureaucratic meddling from the mainland. Service should return to normal once we complete the paperwork, pay the fees and obtain the proper licences.
We’ve also starting a ‘growers scheme’ to help rejuvenate local organic vegetable production. Fresh garden greens and herbs take our food to a new level.
Lord Howe is World Heritage listed and we’re restricted to a maximum of 400 visitors at any time. The restriction makes it a premium destination and the prices reflect that. In peak season, our demographic tends to be Sydney and Melbourne families with plenty of disposable income. They come for a quintessential family beach holiday without the need to shop, cook or clean. In quieter seasons, the prices drop and our guests come from everywhere, mostly to snorkel, dive, surf, walk and explore the island. Now, we’re attracting ‘foodies’ and they’re happy to come anytime – the food is always good.
Our international guests are a small minority (less than 5%), and are mostly honeymooners and nature lovers from the USA, Europe and Japan. The people who travel to the Galapagos Islands or Antarctica also travel to Lord Howe.
The main food event
Some guests think that dinner is the main event. We don’t have TVs, wireless internet or phones in our rooms so guests mingle before dinner and often join tables for a relaxing meal over 4 or 5 courses. In summer, guests start on our waterfront deck with a glass of champagne and watch the sunset over the lagoon.
Other guests would say that lunch is the highlight of their day, if they take one of our gourmet BBQ hampers. We pack fresh kingfish, lamb chops, sausages, fresh salad, home-made bread and good cheese into a local pandanus basket and deliver it to one of the island’s idyllic BBQ spots. All the BBQs are wood fired, so guests have to light the fire as well. Many top barristers, doctors and CEOs spend time comparing ‘fire lighting’ stories, particularly if they’ve relaxed with a bottle of red or a few beers after their BBQ.
The food experience
We need to do a few things. Our guests burn plenty of energy, so we need to keep them well fuelled with a full breakfast, big lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Guests often complain about our portion sizes, but still show up for fresh date scones or flourless orange cake at afternoon tea. We also make sure that they have lighter options and offer simple salads at lunch and lighter meals at dinner.
We offer an earlier kids’ dinner each day, so parents often have a romantic dinner – at least for a few days and then they join other parents for social dinners over a few bottles of wine.
Our weekly ‘regional dinners’ are educational for our older guests – they often haven’t tried red duck curry, paella or yoghurt marinated kingfish. Of course, we’ll grill them a quality piece of sirloin if they don’t like the new flavours, but mostly our older guests say “I didn’t realise how nice Thai food is…” or something like that. Our ‘wine match’ dinners are also educational and guests try great wines by the glass that complement the flavour profiles of the food. This can be a revelation for people who only drink sauvignon blanc and shiraz.
But mostly, our dining experience is about relaxing and socialising. There’s nothing to rush off to after dinner (except bed) so guests hang around. Some sit by the fire in winter, others play snooker, but most just natter, laugh and tell stories. It’s quite infectious.
Many of our guests say our food is the best they’ve had – and these guests eat at good restaurants. Since our chefs make everything from scratch (i.e. stocks, sauces, curry pastes, bread, pastry, desserts), guests are often reminded about ‘stand-out’ meals they’ve had in the past and compare them with their Pinetrees experience. First time guests don’t really know what to expect from a full-board lodge – it’s an old fashioned concept that reminds people of ‘hearty’ home cooked meals. The reality is different. Mushroom soup with truffle foam smells divine, and the colour of a saffron broth with poached king prawns, fennel and salmon roe is exquisite.
Most of our guests are return guests. It’s difficult to attract first time visitors to Lord Howe since our marketing budgets are small (all businesses are run by island families) and the ‘Pacific island’ market is competitive. But once people come the first time, they always come back. We have some guests who have come to Pinetrees twice a year for 40 years – they’ve been hosted by three generations of our family. Others have come every Christmas and New Year for 30 years. We often hear stories about our guests’ 20 year old kids learning to walk on our boatshed deck, or learning to ride a bike on the lawn. During peak season, it’s impossible to get a bed unless you booked before you left the previous year. Outside of peak season, though, there’s always room for new guests!
High profile guests
Lord Howe has no mobile phone coverage and slow ‘broadband’ internet. It means that high profile guests can truly escape their busy schedules (and the media), but only travel 2 hours from Sydney. Among our regular guests are Hollywood actors, TV personalities, state and federal government ministers, ex premiers, CEOs, sports stars and community leaders. During peak season, we can have a dozen guests at any time with AO, QC or SC after their name.
Best time of the year
Autumn is the best. The nights are mild, the days are warm, the water is crystal clear, the big fish are plentiful and the waves are perfect. People come from all over the world to dive and snorkel on our coral reef.
Signature food experience
Our signature ‘fish fry’ dinner has been served for over 70 years – it’s a famous Lord Howe tradition. It was once deep-fried kingfish and chips, but has evolved into 5 courses of indulgence. We start with a soup of the day – often a light miso with poached salmon, and then move on to our spectacular sushi and sashimi platter. First time guests can’t decide if they should take photos of it or eat it – suffice to say they do both. We source the very best yellowfin tuna, kingfish, wahoo and trevally from our local waters and often have them all available to taste on our sashimi plates. The best can be a matter of debate for hours!
We then serve steaming hot beer-battered kingfish and lightly salted chips with a range of fresh salads. It’s simple and perfect. People often come back for three helpings.
The fourth course is dessert – a buffet of 10 amazing treats for all tastes. Some people stick to a few, while others try everything. We always offer a large platter of fresh seasonal fruit, but it tends to be the least popular.
For those who still have room (and there aren’t many), the final course is a platter of fine Australian cheese with all the trimmings.
Our ‘fish fry’ dinner recently featured in an article in the Sunday Telegraph.