Restaurant review: The Lion Hotel

Jul 31, 2015
Caramelised white chocolate yogo. Photo: Tony Lewis

Caramelised white chocolate yogo. Photo: Tony Lewis

Following the recent sale of The Stag Hotel on East Terrace, one of its new owners, Phil Speakman, was quoted as saying he wanted to model it on his much-loved local, The Lion.

The report made one error, saying that, like The Lion, The Stag would have no pokies. Well, The Lion does have pokies, but they’re so out of sight and so financially insignificant that anyone could be excused for thinking they didn’t exist.

In fact, Lion co-owner Tim Gregg, who bought the hotel with partner Andrew Svencis in 1998, says though they inherited a handful of pokies they didn’t use them for two years, and then only because they risked losing their pokie licence. Even now he reckons they’d have made more money keeping the space for functions.

So let’s think of both the new Stag (happily no longer the initially announced Fat Stag) and The Lion as basically pokie-free joints, and if The Stag can use The Lion (all these animals at play) as a benchmark for its food, then it will have made a very good choice.

The Lion’s restaurant, which is at the heart of what has become a very large food and hospitality complex, represents almost the last vestige of what for a time was a golden era in Adelaide’s dining. Back in about 1987, Gregg and Svencis bought the Oxford Hotel in O’Connell Street and created a smart, glass-fronted dining room that they filled with masses of fresh flowers and white linen.


The Lion Hotel restaurant interior. Photo: Tony Lewis

They had captured a manager freshly-trained by the recently opened Hyatt Regency Hotel and snapped up one of the star chefs of the era, Lewis Thyer, from the brash and breezy Glo-Bo’s (above what is now Etica pizza bar in Gilles Street). Thyer had made a name with dishes such as cassoulet with bone marrow brioche and peppered glaze or oyster stew with garlic bread.

Encouraged by Gregg and Svencis, who both had a history in the hospitality trade, in a brief period with the restaurant the innovative, charismatic Thyer put The Oxford on what was then the cutting edge of modern Australian cooking.

One review at the time reported that “anything that can be elevated is encouraged to soar. A yellow Thai duck leg curry has its legs pointing heavenwards from a deep bowl, with a skyscraper wedge of cous cous cake on the side…even a simple chargrilled beef fillet, already 6cm thick, is elevated on a foundation of parmesan polenta a topped with tempura onion rings”. Such was the fashion of the day. Thyer’s Caesar salad was especially noteworthy: “an explosion of crisp leaves and the remaining ingredients climbing out of a hollowed iceberg lettuce”.

Thyer was followed by another top chef, Todd Langley, who would be the second of only seven very good head chefs Gregg and Svencis have had to hire over the past 28 years. Since the move to The Lion in 1998, they’ve had only three exec chefs, the latest of whom, Jason Chalmers, has been with them for almost eight years and now oversees a kitchen brigade of around 35 covering restaurant, bar and function venues. Actually, he’s just lost two of his chefs who have gone off to seek fame and possible fortune with two of their Donahue siblings in the Adelaide version of Seven’s Restaurant Revolution.

Although surrounded by a sprawling hotel complex, The Lion still feels very much like a freestanding restaurant, well insulated from the pub hubbub. What once seemed a quite radical design has now mellowed as it’s gained some of the patina of a well-used restaurant, with booths, banquettes and intimate corners that have made it even more appealing. One side of the restaurant is totally exposed to the kitchen.


Hay Valley lamb neck with pearl barley. Photo: Tony Lewis

The constant factors in all of this, the guardian angels of both menu and wine list, are of course Gregg and Svencis, who both continue to have a very hands-on role. That’s something the new owners of The Stag should note. Chalmers is aware of the heritage for which he’s now responsible, but fashions have changed and his cooking is very different to anything Thyer or Langley would have contemplated.

Chalmers’ dishes are contemporary in style yet classically based, but they also reflect the current fashion for increasingly complex dishes – quite possibly driven by customer fascination with television shows such as MasterChef and a far cry from the relative simplicity of those early Oxford dishes.

Consider the winning dessert cooked by current MasterChef winner Billie McKay, who prepared Heston Blumenthal’s Botrytis Cinera recipe – all 120 ingredients and 66 steps contained in a 2800-word recipe that took poor Billie five hours to prepare using equipment you’ve never heard of and couldn’t afford if you had.

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Chalmers knows that The Lion is competing in a culinary jungle and the apparent simplicity of his menu descriptions – such as Berkshire pig cheek with soy milk custard, miso mustard and seaweed – hides up to nine cooking processes taking days to complete, starting with the pig cheek which is rolled and braised for 12 hours in red wine.


Linguine with chilli prawns. Photo: Tony Lewis

The soy milk custard and roasted nori paste sit in onion shells that have been pickled and compressed in vacuum-sealed bags with miso, soy and mustard powder, sitting on lightly blanched seaweed in a mustard dressing, with a smear of miso mustard on the side, plus a scatter of tiny flowers to pretty it up. All that for $17.90 – incredibly concentrated flavours, meltingly tender pig cheek, crunchy seaweed, salty nori paste, and no, you wouldn’t want to attempt it at home.

An equally good way to start the meal would be the Moreton Bay bugs ($15.90) dusted in turmeric, coriander and smoked paprika, quickly fried with a little pork lardo and wrapped in tendrils of crisp kataifi pastry, then decorated with fat green iceplant leaves, fingers of coastal sea spray and finger lime pearls with a smear of sweet Balinese-style sate sauce. Again, a terrific mix of crunchy textures, colours and vivid flavours.

Five years ago Chalmers thought he’d take his linguine with chilli prawns ($19.90/$32.90) off the menu, just for a change, but change wasn’t permitted by his customers so it’s stayed on as one of The Lion’s staple dishes, and for very good reason. The prawns are poached in a sauce of sautéed chilli, ginger and garlic, mixed with shredded and braised leeks, then deglazed with cockle stock, cream, white wine and saffron and then stirred through the linguine. It’s a classic dish that competes comfortably with any of the similar linguine with chilli crab dishes so popular elsewhere.


Moreton Bay bugs with lardo. Photo: Tony Lewis

The Hay Valley lamb neck ($38.90) is a more substantial winter dish and another of those epic dishes that take forever to prepare. Slow-braised for 12 hours in stock with herbs and chopped mixed vegetables, the lamb neck is shredded and rolled inside pork crepinette, panfried and brushed with mustard butter. Then the dish goes a bit over the top with probably too many competing interests – it sits on slices of braised fennel with a red wine jus and barley pearls with a hint of preserved lemon, then decorated with toasted walnut and goat curd cream (in which pulverised organic hay adds a mellow, savoury flavour), colourful shavings of sweet target or candy beets, shards of light green fennel toffee and a scattering of dehydrated saltbush and cavolo nero powder. To be honest, I reckon you could discard half of this stuff and it would taste and look as good, but would that satisfy the MasterChef addicts?

Curiosity alone will be enough to tempt you to The Lion’s desserts, and if you were to choose something described as caramelised white chocolate yogo ($14.90), you’d be well pleased. This is a playful, fun dessert involving thick, frozen coconut yoghurt with raspberry sorbet on the side and a riotous scattering of crushed, dehydrated chocolate brownies, roasted coconut ‘sand’ with crumbs of honeycomb, a drizzle of raspberry and Cointreau coulis and a few fresh raspberries – a dish in which all the flavours and textures are well matched and come together comfortably.

If The Stag can do as well as this, it’ll make a handsome addition to Adelaide’s dining ‘jungle’.

The Lion Hotel
Cnr Melbourne and Jerningham Streets, North Adelaide
(08) 8367 0222
Lunch – Sunday to Friday; Dinner – Monday to Saturday.

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