The Darwin Free Spirit Resort on the Stuart Highway is one of those places that I pass by perhaps six to eight times each week. Everyone knows it’s a caravan / cabin park located behind a service station that once upon a time had a fantastic eatery. Indeed, I can remember fuelling up and grabbing a quick meal there before hitting the road and going camping or day tripping with friends decades ago before being married. The association with the eatery continued as a young tradie as I would often call in and grab lunch while heading to and from site. In my contract admin days I was able to advise one of my sub-contractors that the cabin park was expanding and looking for tenderers to submit pricing on various works packages, of which they won one.
However, it is only in the past 10 years or so I have become aware that there is also a restaurant called Elements nestled behind the tropical hedge of greenery that shields the van park from the highway. And it’s all too easy to drive past. There’s not a great deal of signage advertising the oasis; blink and you’ll miss it – as evidently I did. Nor is it the type of place you would expect to find along that stretch of highway. Further, most van and cabin parks simply cater for their own guests (if they even do that) and have very little interest in capturing a wider audience.
And so, after months of saying to myself ‘I must visit there one day’, the day finally came recently when I wandered in off the street and found a table poolside during a rather busy dinner service, and chose a simple dinner as my introduction to the oasis behind the hedge.
At first glance, the layout of the place took some getting used to. But after a short while it became clear that Elements is modelled off a typical bistro formula. Drinks ordered from one counter, meals from another, menus available to take to the table with daily specials chalked up behind the ordering counter. A bar area is located adjacent to a TV area, and there is a great number of dining tables both inside and out. A large, well maintained swimming pool amongst well maintained landscaped garden beds is the central feature point, with additional seating located around the pool side.
The menu reads pub cuisine. No matter how much you dress up the dish names with localities, ingredients and cooking methods, items like Behemoth Wagyu Beef Burger, and Bees Creek Honey Roasted Pumpkin Risotto, are still simply burgers and risotto. I then considered that the elaborate and descriptive names may have been an attempt to justify the menu prices which I found to be generally on the high side – I don’t know. My philosophy is simple: if I’m going to pay higher prices, then I am going to expect a higher level of quality – food, portion size, and service. While browsing the menu I couldn’t think of a pub menu with prices this high.
Neither could I remember the last time I had bangers and mash, and so I just had to order the buffalo bangers and mash served with peas and gravy. And what else? A dessert wasn’t ordered, even though they sounded appealing on the menu. My game plan for the night was simple – if the main course wowed me, then I would order coffee and dessert.
It seemed to be a busy night with a mixture of locals and tourists enjoying a balmy tropical night. You can generally tell who’s who by the quantity of clothes being worn. Plus, poolside there was a covers band playing to keep us entertained while waiting for service.
And an enjoyable wait it was. While waiting for my order the band told me all about their time travelling down the river on Proud Mary and then hanging out in Margaritaville while drinking love potion number nine. This obviously led them to the chapel where they were going to get married, before telling me about their boots that were going to walk all over me. Key elements of this narrative were linked by another three unrelated tales. As the ninth song since ordering started playing, dinner was brought to the table by a smileless server who placed the meal down and collected the plastic table number without even an ‘enjoy’.
One thing that wasn’t made clear was that the cutlery was to be collected from within the internal dining area after placing the order. So back around the pool and through the crowd of diners outside, in I went on my hunt for cutlery. After finding it, I made it back to my table expecting to be wowed. But I wasn’t.
For sure, buffalo sausages have a great flavour; much stronger than a beef sausage and these definitely appeared to be boutique made with uneven pockets of herbs being encountered throughout the sausage. But the lean meat felt like it could have used some additional added fat to soften the bite. The portion size consisted of three short fat sausages, sitting on top of a bed of mash potato.
The mash was just mash. A bit on the runny side for my liking, and the peas scattered on top were few and far between. Discussing the meal like this makes it seem unappealing – which the individual elements were. However combine these all together on the fork, and then find some gravy to wipe the fork through, and the meal was transformed. The salty gravy was a welcomed addition and completed the overall taste of the dish, in addition to giving the dry sausage some much needed moisture. Unfortunately there was very little mash, and not enough gravy to get a much needed dollop on each fork full of food.
Parting thoughts? It was an adequate meal. Not a generously sized portion, and while I accept that it’s hard to make bangers and mash look sexy, this was presented and served as if someone didn’t have a care in the world. Without the buffalo meat as a unique sales point, this would have been just another pub meal rushed out to a waiting patron. But this wasn’t a pub, and there certainly didn’t seem to be any rush made in getting the meal out. At these prices I expected something more wowing – either grandeur, generous or loved – and the buffalo selling point, in my mind, just wasn’t worth the price premium.
As you can imagine, coffee and cake was sought elsewhere. A shame as the atmosphere and ambiance was really growing on me and I wanted to settle in for the night by the pool. But nonetheless this first experience has whet my appetite and I look forward to trying out the other menu items at a later date.