Chinese-born artist Na Lan recalls crying all the way from Beijing to Sydney. And the tears didn’t stop flowing when the plane touched down.
It was out of the frying pan and into the fire on the culture shock meter, as her Australian husband Reg drove three-and-a-half hours, over and beyond the Blue Mountains to the Central Tablelands of NSW.
The car finally pulled up 240km later, down the end of a dirt road.
Welcome to Rylstone – the gateway to the Mudgee region and nearly 9000km from Na Lan’s birthplace in central China’s Shannxi province.
It’s safe to say Na Lan was as familiar living amongst the gum trees as the people of Rylstone were with steamed dumplings.
But a few years later, with brilliant skill and entrepreneurship, Na Lan’s authentic yum cha restaurant 29 Nine 99 has helped put Mudgee on the map as a fine dining destination.
“It’s improved a lot I have to say,” Na Lan says.
“You can tell these last few years, it’s booming at the moment.”
Na Lan married fellow artist Reg on the 29th of the ninth 1999 – hence the name of the restaurant – and the first business she opened upon moving to Rylstone was an art shop selling prints and other funky Chinese crafts and accessories.
But in a town of 600 people, the market wasn’t big enough, and despite her lack of pedigree as a chef, Na Lan decided to add a culinary component to the operation in 2008.
“I rang my dad straight away and asked for a recipe,” she says.
“I was really nervous. It was an open kitchen and I thought I’d catch fire.”
On her first day she made 30 dumplings and they sold in five minutes.
Now with her restaurant open seven days a week and booked out every weekend, she is averaging more than 300 dumplings a night.
Like all the fine dining restaurants popping up around Mudgee, Na Lan uses local produce.
The pan fried lamb dumpling is to die for, but in truth, you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, and the steamed seafood selection is also divine.
Located in Louee Street, and surrounded by historic sandstone buildings and churches, 29 Nine 99 is a pocket of China hidden in country Australia.
Inside, the walls of the restaurant are covered with artwork and delightful merchandise for sale, which Na Lan refreshes every year when she makes an annual trip home to China.
Forty four minutes down the Castlereagh Highway and you’re in Mudgee. And it doesn’t take long to discover that one of the state’s oldest towns is home to one of its most impressive food destinations.
Let’s start with breakfast. When in a small country town in search of coffee, the best bet is to go where the locals go and in Mudgee that’s the Butcher Shop Cafe.
This classic building went up in 1870 and as the name suggests, it was Mudgee’s only butcher shop until it was put out of business by Woolworths and Coles about a decade ago.
Owner James O’Neill has retained all of its charm, with the tiled walls up to the high ceiling, and the ‘Butchery’ sign still on display in big, red letters inside.
O’Neill and his family moved from Sydney to get away from the rat race and his aim was simple. Good service, with good food, that’s a hang for the locals.
And that’s what it’s become.
“Here comes a mug of cappuccino,” O’Neill says as a gentleman in overalls approaches the door.
“We had a house in Redfern and had to invent something, and this came up. We only did it because we knew this town was on the up and up and it has been ever since we got here.”
Andy Crestani was a chef going places in Sydney but saw an opportunity in Mudgee to advance himself in the restaurant game.
At his father-in-law’s picturesque Robert Stein Winery and Vineyard, Crestani has created a unique and inspiring dining experience with his new spot the Pipeclay Pumphouse.
You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, country-sized portions for a fraction of the price you would pay in the city. Wine and fine dining – a match made in heaven.
“I think there’s a younger generation of chefs driving Mudgee to be that food orientated area as well,” says Crestani, pointing to the ultra-schmick Sajo’s Lounge Bar and Restaurant – a transformed 1800s pharmacy – as another prime example.
“It was something Mudgee was screaming out for,” says Crestani.
Also high on the list of Mudgee must-do’s is another flourishing winery/restaurant – Di Lusso Estate.
Specialising in Italian wines, Di Lusso’s is determined to mirror the philosophy of his motherland, providing food and wine together for a relaxing, social experience.
It’s about the woodfire pizzas, the 17 wine styles on offer, the olive and fig trees, even the bocce court out by the lake.
This is Mudgee. Cosmopolitan but still country.
IF YOU GO TO MUDGEE:
Getting there: Mudgee is a 3.5-hour drive south-west from Sydney by car along the Great Western Highway and Castlereagh Highway. Coach services connect with the Sydney Rail Network at Lithgow.
Staying there: 10 Lawson Street is one of the latest self-contained accommodation options in Mudgee. It’s located in a quiet street and is only one block from the cafes, pubs and restaurants in the city centre. A minimum two-night stay costs from $420 a person, for the two nights.
Mudgee’s eating hotspots: For breakfast, try Butcher Shop Cafe and Cafe 89. For lunch, Pipeclay Pumphouse and 29 Nine 99 Yum Cha. For afternoon tea, head to High Valley Wine and Cheese. For dinner, check out Roth’s Wine Bar, Sajo’s Lounge and Bar Restaurant, and Di Lusso Estate winery.
The writer travelled as a guest of Mudgee Region Tourism.