If you’ve got a sweet tooth and you’re visiting the Hunter Valley vineyards, there’s no better place to go than a restaurant focused wholly and solely on dishing up delicious desserts.
Established in 2011 by former Sydneysiders Fernando and Renata Antao, Sabor Dessert Bar offers more than 50 mouthwatering creations including Fernando’s home-grown speciality – his Portuguese grandmother’s famous chocolate mousse.
This month Your Hunter Valley Blackboard Magazine has gone behind the glass-fronted display cabinets to discover a little more about a couple of the sweetest restaurateurs in the Hunter.
YHV: Tell us a little about both of your backgrounds – where did your interest in desserts begin?
Fernando: Both my parents originated from Portugal and Renata was born in Brazil, and when it comes to food, Europeans and South Americans alike love their food. Everything from celebrations and family gatherings seem to revolve around food, and dessert was always an equally important part of the meal. It’s how a meal finishes that leaves you satisfied, and often is the lingering afterthought of a meal.
When did you first learn how to make your grandmother’s famous chocolate mousse and what do you think is so special about it?
I started watching my mum in the kitchen at a very early age, probably six or seven-years-old, and she would normally let me do some of the mixing of ingredients. I would say I was approximately 14 when mum allowed me to make the mousse from scratch by myself; it wasn't quite the same as hers, but I have a feeling that I've improved over the last 30 years.
My grandmother lived in Portugal, and every couple of years we would go over to visit, but she never got a chance to teach me herself, probably because I was too busy playing with my cousins who I hadn't seen for the last two years.
I think it's special because it's not made with any cream like a conventional chocolate mousse, and the fact that my grandmother used port wine in her mousse - way back then it was used as a preservative as there were no fridges. My mother continued to use port, and today I do too – not only is it following my grandmother’s recipe, it gives it a flavour and texture you don't normally find in the run-of-mill mousse.
When did you first become involved in the hospitality industry and why?
I was always involved in hospitality from a young age, working in KFC and graduating to cafes in and around Sydney while I was studying. I worked in the kitchen making pastries and cakes in a small cafe in a Westfields in Pagewood in my early 20s. I always had a passion for design and building though, so I was in the architectural and building game for over ten years but sadly grew tired of all the red tape that came with it, so we bought a pizzeria in Pyrmont, which ran quite successfully.
That's where I started making my grandmother's chocolate mousse to sell in the pizzeria. It was so popular that people would come into the pizzeria just to buy tubs and tubs of our chocolate mousse or come in and have a coffee with our mousse. It was then we started to wholesale the chocolate mousse to well over 100 stores in NSW and Queensland.
When did you first visit the Hunter Valley and why did you and Renata want to move here?
We started visiting the Hunter Valley probably when we were 20 years old, always with a group of friends and generally for the June long weekend when it was nice and cold and we'd buy some wine, some local cheese, olives and of course chocolates and then retreat to our accommodation.
After a few visits, Renata and I started coming up to the Hunter three or four times a year as a couple. We loved it up here because it was so serene and relaxing, and the backdrop of the mountains and vineyards was so beautiful.
After having travelled several times overseas around Europe and Asia and also around Australia we quickly realised it was the only holiday spot that we really connected with and we swore to each other that one day we would move here.
What made you decide to set up Sabor in the Hunter and what were you hoping to achieve?
As I mentioned we would visit the Hunter several times a year and being from Sydney we would often go out for dinner somewhere and then move on to one of our favourite haunts for a coffee and dessert, but we found that with most restaurants in the Hunter Valley having a two-course minimum we couldn't do that here. Having a love of desserts and with mum’s influence, we thought we could do both, pursue our love of desserts and create a location where people could come and just have coffee or wine and dessert, sit and relax and enjoy the surroundings.
That's when Sabor was born in Lovedale on our property in the old Monahan Estate cellar door, which we lovingly renovated and turned into a dessert bar. We decided early on that we weren't going to make the run-of-the-mill cakes by the slice, but instead create individual desserts that were to serve one person.
We really didn't set out to achieve any great heights; it was just a place where people could come and relax and enjoy our desserts. We also didn't really think it would get that busy or that there would be such a demand. We were very mistaken! The day of our ‘soft opening’ we had well over 200 or 300 people come through the doors including a large car club, and with no staff we took the orders, made the coffee, plated the dessert, ran the food and drinks to customers and then cleared the tables and did the washing, ALL ON OUR OWN!
I still remember Renata being in the kitchen that first weekend crying and saying ‘we can't do this, it's out of control’ – that was only the first weekend! We quickly learnt that we needed help, so with the help of a local resident Robyn (who ended up being our first employee) who approached saying she would love to come and help out, and a few more staff we were able to grow Sabor into what it is today.
A couple of years later we had a pastry chef by the name of Nicole Fang come knocking on our door and helped us take Sabor to the next level of culinary delight with all her expertise and knowledge in pastry and chocolate.
Here we are today, nearly eight years later in Pokolbin because we needed a larger venue to cope with the demand.
I believe you have more than 50 different desserts, with the menu changing all the time. What inspires your choice of desserts?
Yes, for quite a few years now we've built our range of desserts to 50 on the menu, and there are some days where we think... WHY!!! Inspiration comes from many places, whether it be Nicole's background and foresight in pastry, my Portuguese background or Renata's Brazilian heritage. For example, one of Brazil's favourite ingredients in dessert is caramel or as they call it ‘Doce de Leite’. We use this in a couple of our desserts, one being our Biku Banoffee and the other, our very popular Flaming Chocolate and Caramel Brownie, which we serve in a hot skillet, pour whiskey over it and then set it alight. Also our yearly trips to Bali, we find both inspiration there and just the time away helps us refresh the mind and gives us the energy to return to Sabor and try new combinations of flavours.
What do you think is the key to creating a truly memorable dessert?
I think dessert, and food, in general, must satisfy all the senses. It firstly must have a visual appeal to attract someone to it, then the flavour combination, of course, is very important and so too is texture. There must be a level of smoothness and crunch to almost every dessert.
Do you have any exciting plans in store for 2019?
We always have something new coming up. Generally, it’s a new dessert we are planning, but we do have something exciting that we are planning for our menu in 2019... but you'll just have to stay tuned like everyone else to find out!