DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Penny Wat­son

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.


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.

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