A TASTE OF VICTORIA
MELBOURNE MAY BE HOME TO SOME OF THE BEST DINING IN AUSTRALIA, BUT DEDICATED FOODIES NOW HAVE PLENTY OF REASONS TO VENTURE INTO THE HINTERLAND OF THE STATE OF VICTORIA FOR THEIR NEXT SHOW-STOPPING MEAL.
Melbourne may be home to some of the best dining in Australia, but dedicated foodies now have plenty of reasons to venture into the hinterland of the state of Victoria for their next show-stopping meal.
GAZING PAST MY FEET THROUGH THE WRAPAROUND WINDOW OF A FERRARI-RED HELICOPTER,
I feel like I’m suspended in a bubble, both the literal and metaphorical kind. The countryside below us is a patchwork quilt of faded brown and yellow fields, all dry and dusty after a long, hot Australian summer. In the distance, the pristine Victoria coastline shimmers in shades of turquoise, green, and blue.
Our pilot is on the lookout for Don’s paddock. Don is a local bloke who has given us permission to land on his farm. When we finally spot him, he is standing next to a dirt-encrusted SUV, an arm shading his eyes as he looks skyward, the quintessential Australian. As we descend below the tree line, he waves a big hello as the wash of the rotor sends hay flying around us like a ticker-tape parade. Which is fitting—we’re about to dine at Brae, a farm-to-table destination restaurant near the rural township of Birragurra and one of only two Australian establishments on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It sure feels like a celebration.
Birragurra sits on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula in the foothills of the Otway Ranges, a 90-minute drive southwest of Melbourne. The helicopter ride (which can be arranged through Brae if you feel like splurging) takes just half an hour. But while arriving in style has its benefits, it might also leave you feeling shortchanged—part of the beauty of this place is the getting here, a bucolic drive that combines coastal hinterland and dairy country with glimpses of beckoning waters. This gastronomically geared geography lays the groundwork for produce and protein that fit all the culinary buzzwords: fresh, seasonal, sustainable, ethical, organic. Brae’s own 12-hectare property adds homemade, homegrown, home-churned, and handpicked to the list. The restaurant boasts an organic kitchen garden laid out in tidy rows, a fruit orchard covered in nets to keep the birds away, an old olive grove, and beehives. Diners who wish to linger can avail themselves of the six-suite hotel that opened on-site last year; each of the slate-floored rooms comes complete with a cocktail bar, turntable and record collection, and views of the pastoral landscape.
Brae’s philosophy of “contemporary cuisine built around an immense respect for nature and seasonality” is down to chef and owner Dan Hunter’s all-encompassing passion. His tasting menu, eaten in a modern, pared-back dining room set within the shell of a lovely old weatherboard farmhouse, is a tantalizing culinary journey. The dishes tend to stop conversation, allowing the brain to focus on the fun your taste buds are having. Savory smoked-eel churros bring a hint of humor, as does the Iced Oyster, a rich and creamy sorbet served in an oyster shell with a top layer of mossy-looking matcha. But it’s the garden-fresh flavors that really make you sit up and think. Tiny teardrop peas embedded in mini lemony tarts taste as sweet and green as if they were just picked, which no doubt is the case. Beetroot served on fresh honeycomb and a mound of shiny orange rainbow trout roe hits every corner of the mouth with sweet, savory, and salty sensations. Grilled prawn heads—“made to be sucked and crunched,” our waiter explains—sit next to nasturtium-enfolded parcels of prawn meat. The finger-lime “caviar” on top, like the petals, leaves, sprigs, berries, and flowers that garnish the ceramic plates, is a reminder that the garden and the seasons run the show.
Brae, which opened in
late 2013, is among the most awarded of Victoria’s regional restaurants, a term used by local food bible
The Age Good Food Guide to denote establishments located outside metropolitan Melbourne. But it’s just one of an increasing number of such eateries that are on par with some of the best restaurants in the big city. As Hunter himself jokes, “We’re not just giving them a run for their money, we’re crushing them!” You don’t have to take his word for it. This year’s edition of the
Guide saw more regional restaurants than ever before receive coveted chefs hats—Australia’s answer to Michelin stars. Not only that, five of the 16 awards given out went to regional restaurants. Among them, Brae won Restaurant of the Year. Newcomer Igni, in Geelong, debuted with two hats and took home accolades for Regional Restaurant of the Year and Chef of the Year, which was awarded to coowner and chef Aaron Turner.
The latter was an unexpected result given that Geelong is a small beachfront city with no defining gourmet bent, but the surprise diminishes after eating there. Igni’s five-course menu-less experience invites diners to—often unwittingly—respond to the flavors and unique ingredients that are placed in front of them. This often occurs with the gulp of a perfectly paired pinot or riesling. On my visit, a delicate little pile of crispy saltbush leaves (the scrubby native bush that gives lamb a richer, herbier flavor) crunch with the familiar flavors of salt and vinegar. A simple pale green hinterland leaf, naturally grown near the ocean, tastes so much like an oyster, it wouldn’t be out of place with a squeeze of lemon on it. Zucchini flowers are stuffed with pickled mussels, combining garden and sea, and King Edward potatoes come disguised as noodles and are tossed through with garlic butter and chives. We are kept guessing by a delicious sorbet dessert, its origins at first undisclosed, that turns out to be flavored with caramelized onion.
The theme, again, is unashamedly foraged and locally grown, “a trend that was partly behind the regional push of fine dining,” according to Good Food Guide editor Roslyn Grundy.
Two hundred kilometers west of Geelong, Robin Wickens can attest to this. Previously at Melbourne’s Attica (the other Australian restaurant on the World’s 50 Best list), British-born Wickens is now executive chef at the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, a rural town at the southern end of the Grampians mountain range, a bushwalker’s paradise that erupts from the surrounding plains like a tidal wave.
Wickens’s playground extends beyond the Royal Mail’s awardwinning dining room into a former horse paddock turned kitchen garden, the biggest of its kind in Australia. The one-hectare plot, home to more than 400 varieties of edible plants, has been in the making for seven years, and guests staying in the hotel’s varied and
beautiful accommodation have the option of a chef’s tour.
I am fortunate to have Wickens himself as my guide. The softspoken chef weaves in and out of tomato vines, corn rows, and beds of artichoke while explaining how this verdant patch, in a hundred shades of green, inspires his exceptional culinary offerings. It’s also part of the Royal Mail’s goal of becoming a self-sustainable entity. Other projects include a snail farm, mushroom cultivation, 130 chickens that produce all the hotel’s eggs, a stone-fruit orchard, olive grove, beehives, and an enormous glass greenhouse for propagating seedlings. The hotel rears its own beef and lamb as well. Anything not grown or raised on the property, Wickens says, is sourced from reliable local producers. Among them is Great Ocean Ducks, a 16hectare farm that feeds its birds fresh strawberries and organic grains. One of Wickens’ signature dishes, Duck and its Dinner, playfully replicates this diet. Pink, thin-skinned slices of duck breast are served with pickled strawberries and apple, a granola of oats, seeds, almonds, and honey, and prettily garnished with wild rocket, society garlic flowers, and salad burnet. It’s worth the trip out alone.
If you were driving
back to Melbourne from Dunkeld, you’d be well placed to stop in Daylesford, a spa town in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Its beating heart is the gorgeous Lake House, a 33-year-old hotel run by the talented and creative Wolf-Tasker family. From the sundeck at its fine-dining restaurant, guests can sip on a spritzer and take in Lake Daylesford and the Wombat State Forest beyond. Somewhere in the background, resident geese make a noisy fuss and kookaburras swoop in and out of the trees.
Lake House’s 33 rooms and suites jut in and out of a magical mess of a garden, part herbaceous, part floral, part wooded. The rambling greenery is representative of a kitchen that has, from day one, been in rhythm with the seasons. Its culinary director, Alla WolfTasker, captures this best in her missive at the top of the menu: “The latest arrival of summer we’ve seen for years has turned things topsy-turvy for gardeners, farmers, and those of us who enjoy using produce from the region,” she muses. “I imagine we’ll be reprinting this menu often, as the season progresses and new produce at its peak starts coming through the doors.” The menu goes on to list some of the local producers that have contributed to the pantry: Vicki and Nick Sher’s wagyu herd in Ballan, fish from Jan and Robert Jones’s Tuki Trout Farm, chickens from Bruce Burton’s Milking Yard Farm, eels from Ben Osborne in Skipton.
While Lake House has long led the charge for local and homegrown produce, its reputation also extends to leading regional hospitality trends. One that
is right in their sweet spot, says Alla’s daughter Larissa Wolf-Tasker, is the increasing number of Melburnians wanting to combine short accessible breaks with fine dining.
“For a while it felt like if you wanted a world-class escape, you needed to go overseas to get the full package,” she says. “Now, in Australia, and particularly Melbourne, you can drive in any direction and find a gorgeous and interesting destination.”
It’s true: main roads in any direction from Melbourne lead to regional food and wine havens. Aside from the Royal Mail and Brae, the historic gold-mining town of Beechworth lays claim to Provenance, an à la carte place distinctly inspired by Japanese ingredients and set in an old bank building where you can bed down in one of four suites. In nearby King Valley, on a hill overlooking vineyards, Chrismont Wines’ relatively new restaurant and tasting room serves Italian favorites such as homemade gnocchi doused in fresh sage and melty butter. You can leave armed with a case of the locally grown prosecco or check in to the estate’s three-bedroom guesthouse. Up in the far northwest of the state, where farmland turns into desert, guests of the historic Mildura Grand hotel provide a captive audience for Stefano’s, a two-hat restaurant that revels in the produce of the past century’s Italian immigrants.
Then there is Jackalope. Opened in April on the Mornington Peninsula, this 42-room stunner is set to be the most talked about hotel debut in Australia this year, and for good reason. Chinese-born, Melbourne-based owner Louis Li has spent millions turning a rolling country vineyard into the kind of modern architectural retreat you’d expect to find in California. The hotel’s restaurants are raising the bar to attract destination diners from Melbourne and don’t fall short on glamour and intrigue. Fine diner Doot Doot Doot is a contemporary space with an open kitchen and cool black-clad staff who wouldn’t look out of place in a fashion ad. Floating above the entire dining area is an eye-popping chandelier by Victorian lighting designer Jan Flook; on the tables below it, golden cutlery pops against black ceramic plates, making artwork of each beautifully crafted dish. The eight-course tasting menu marries local produce—spanner crab, lamb loin, goat curd—with exotic flavors like furikake, guanciale, and bottarga. The paired wines, including a rare Australia-made, Spanish-style fino sherry from Beechworth’s Pennyweight Winery, hail from small regional winemakers including the property’s own Willow Creek vineyard. The result is wines with organic and biodynamic pedigrees and raw flavor profiles that fall nicely into the natural wine trend. Casual bistro Rare Hare, meanwhile, serves local craft tap beers and a wood-fired oven inspires deep, smoky flavors in dishes like roasted bone marrow served with sambal and crisp shallots. Head chef Guy Stanway credits his style to half a decade living in Asia. “That left an indelible mark on my palate and plates,” he says, adding, “By using ingredients grown on property and sourced from surrounding farms, and pairing dishes with wines produced on-site, we can offer a genuine and unique regional experience.”
The same could be said for Ezard at Levantine Hill in the winerich Yarra Valley, which won the Good Food Guide’s publicly voted People’s Choice Award for 2017. A two-year-old outpost of beloved Melbourne chef Teage Ezard, the restaurant’s avant-garde architecture, umbrella-studded forecourt, and cradling views of the Levantine Hill estate’s vineyards gives it a salubrious atmosphere softened by serenading Spanish guitar players on the weekend. The gourmet
tasting menu and wine pairing show off the genius of a city chef working with regional produce and a resident winemaker. A slowcooked organic farm egg is served basking in pureed sweetcorn and an emulsion meant to evoke a humble cheese on toast; dehydrated bacon crumbs are sprinkled on top for a perfect brunch offering. It is paired with Levantine Hill’s 2015 Chardonnay, the ripe young flavors cutting through the rich and creamy yolkiness of the dish. I also try a garden salad of pea panna cotta, asparagus, leaves, and petals, which takes on a nutty, earthy flavor with the addition of jamón ibérico and dehydrated black olive “soil.” Accompanied by the winery’s 2014 Mélange Traditionnel Blanc, it’s unforgettable.
In neighboring Coldstream, the restaurant at the family-owned Oakridge Wines is the brainchild of head chef Matt Stone, who de- rives his seasonal menu from a thriving kitchen garden and a region rich with artisan food producers with an ethical bent. One standout dish is trout caviar, served with sour cream, garden herbs, and a swirl of house-made escargot pastry. The roe is from Yarra Valley Trout Caviar, an aquaculture farm on the nearby Rubicon River. “Unlike most caviar farms,” the menu explains, “the trout here aren’t killed to harvest the eggs. They are put to sleep in a bath of clove oil, and then the belly of the fish is massaged to extract the roe. When the fish has been milked it’s woken in fresh water and lives on.” Cam, the restaurant manager, tells me without a hint of mirth that they’ve only lost one trout to date.
Now, that kind of dedication to regional dining has got to be worth leaving the city for.
Right: Vineyard views at Jackalope hotel’s casual bistro Rare Hare. Opposite, from
left: A seasonal tart of fresh burrata curd, zucchini, and asparagus at Oakridge Wines’ garden-driven restaurant; chef Dan Hunter at Brae.