Why Essen restaurant in Stanthorpe is essential dining in regional Queensland

Owner-chef Clarissa Pabst is writing her own small-town rules at this vine-covered cottage.

Callan Boys



I’m at Essen in Stanthorpe, about three hours’ drive south-west of Brisbane. There’s no wine list in this tiny restaurant, but you can bring your own booze and the guy next to us is on his third Vodka Cruiser. His partner has discreetly removed her shoes and a bloke in an Akubra has just rocked up with a bottle of rum. Fireworks blast a few blocks over at the grape harvest festival and, in case all that isn’t enough to remind diners they’re in regional Queensland, rain is hammering down on a corrugated iron roof. Essen is a special place.

In some ways, it’s a lot like other restaurants. There’s a wood-fired oven, there’ll probably be some pasta, and the four-course set menu starts with focaccia and ends with dessert. A copy of Sydney chef Mat Lindsay’s Ester: Australian Cooking sits on the counter next to Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food. Both hardbacks are notices of intent.

It’s the kind of comfort cooking you can imagine Stephanie Alexander serving for Sunday lunch.

But owner Clarissa Pabst is also writing her own small-town rules, ensuring she can serve the food she wants and still turn a profit. Pabst is Essen’s only chef, cooking for up to 30 guests an evening, while one friendly front-of-house manager runs dishes and opens wine. The shared menu is $91 per person and vegans cannot be catered for. If you’re on the keto diet, sorry, can’t help you. There are just three services a week and bookings are essential.

Some chefs are reading this and thinking, “Bloody hell, that sounds like the dream.” And it kind of is. Stanthorpe is a few clicks past the NSW border, surrounded by rich farming land and Granite Belt vineyards. The beef is beefier here, the Dutch creams creamier.

Pabst was born and raised in the region and worked in health administration for a bit, but figured that cooking professionally – like her mum – could be more rewarding. After completing an apprenticeship in Melbourne and spending time at Tivoli Road Bakery, she opened Essen in 2019.

It’s the kind of comfort cooking you can imagine Stephanie Alexander serving for Sunday lunch. Tropea onion and parmesan tart; roast chook with white polenta; lemon thyme panna cotta and Golden Queen peach sorbet.

When a restaurant offers “caraway seed focaccia with Rising Sun Farm pork schmaltz”, I will build my weekend around visiting it. Also, any excuse to drive through New England and crank up Tenterfield Saddler.

Nigella seed focaccia with bkeila, cucumber and fried curry leaf.
Nigella seed focaccia with bkeila, cucumber and fried curry leaf.Paul Harris

Pabst changes most of her dishes weekly, largely depending on what her suppliers are offering and what her mum and brother are farming. The just-toasted focaccia is pork fat-free when I visit, spread instead with a Tunisian Jewish condiment called bkeila, which is made with kale and garlic simmered in oil for many hours. Curls of cucumber and fried curry leaf balance the paste’s intensity and Vodka Cruiser guy nods in approval.

Pumpkin is smoked to the point of submission, stuffed inside a thick ribbon of pappardelle and curled into a softball-sized nest. Lemon and brown butter bring the pasta to life, and there’s crisp sage and hazelnuts for crunch.

Go-to dish: Smoked butternut pumpkin-filled pappardelle with hazelnuts, lemon and sage.
Go-to dish: Smoked butternut pumpkin-filled pappardelle with hazelnuts, lemon and sage.Paul Harris

By this point, you may want something punchy and chilled in your glass, and the hot tip is to visit nearby Bent Road Winery for a bottle during the day. I’m a big fan of its left-of-centre La Petite Mort range, which you can also buy to take away at Stonefruit wine bar in Tenterfield.

There’s kombucha if you forget to bring booze. Essen doesn’t have a licence, mainly because it’s in a residential backstreet in a vine-covered cottage that was someone’s home and a butcher before it became a restaurant. I have no idea why the council figures BYO is fine but on-premise sales are not, especially since – as Pabst tells me – some groups come armed with a full carton of beer.

Heck, after a long day of driving, I wouldn’t mind a cold one with our steak. It’s a wood-fired rib cap of Queensland Angus, the inside a vivid purple and glistening with its own juices. Roast spuds roll about on the same plate with herby green butter, and there’s a side of peak-condition tomatoes and basil leaves perched in baba ghanoush.

Granny Smith apple tarte tatin with lemon-leaf ice-cream.
Granny Smith apple tarte tatin with lemon-leaf ice-cream.Supplied

Dessert is Granny Smith tarte tatin topped with lemon-leaf ice-cream. You can’t fault the country-fresh flavours, but purists might prefer their tarte tatin more sticky-sweet and butter-soft.

Regardless, I love this restaurant. It makes me want to open my own small regional dining room, serving “whatever looks good at the market” and sitting down with locals to talk about sheep and flowers and dogs.

What Pabst is doing isn’t easy, but it seems like a smart model in an increasingly high-cost market. Build it and they will come – and they might also bring their own Esky.

The low-down

Vibe: Come-as-you-are, wine-country dining

Go-to dish: Smoked butternut pumpkin-filled pappardelle with hazelnuts, lemon and sage (as part of a set menu)

Drinks: BYO-alcohol only, corkage $4 per person

Cost: Four-course shared set menu, $91 per person

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine

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Callan BoysCallan Boys is editor of SMH Good Food Guide, restaurant critic for Good Weekend and Good Food writer.

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