No-one would question your sanity (at least not openly) if you jumped on a plane to Modena with the sole purpose of an evening at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. Likewise, it’s perfectly reasonable to undertake a road trip to sample some of Victoria’s best regional restaurants. Yes, we know Flinders Lane is a culinary destination and that Ben Shewry continues to do wonderful things at Attica. But there are food adventures to be had further afield, in the wine regions, gold rush-era outposts and industrial port cities of the state. It’s food as destination. We travel for thrills, exotic experiences, adventure and love – and you can find all that and more on plates around regional Victoria.
This Birregurra institution appears top of the list because it’s not only one of the best restaurants in Australia, it’s one of the best in the world. That fact is confirmed by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, in which Dan Hunter’s Brae appeared at number 44 in 2017 after just four years in operation. That’s quite a feat for a restaurant located far from the world’s restaurant reviewers, food writers and gourmands in a small town 90 minutes’ drive west of Melbourne. A meal here will take several hours; the tasting menu runs to more than a dozen courses and each exquisitely plated dish bears the full flavour of months of loving care: planting, growing, harvesting, hours of preparation.
Brae, in a contemporary dining room behind the façade of a traditional white cottage, is bounded by the organic garden that informs much of the menu: there are orchards, organic vegies, truffle oaks, honey bees, sheep and laying hens. The tasting menu changes daily depending on what’s growing; in the mix currently are winter bounties such as celeriac, hollow crown parsnip, paris market carrot, “the last of the pears” and “the very, very last pomegranate”. If you’re lucky, a Hunter legend may be on the menu, such as the deep-fried parsnip dessert with apple-and-parsnip mousse and apple “snow”; or the Iced Oyster, essentially oyster ice-cream made with freeze-fried oyster and sea lettuce.
Order the matching wines and really make a weekend of it by staying in one of Brae’s six luxury suites. Retreat to your hideaway for an après-lunch nap; staff will bring a supper plate to your door when, unbelievably, hunger rumbles again.
Lunch Saturday-Monday; dinner Thursday-Saturday
4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra; (03) 5236 2226
Lake House, Daylesford
Lake House is a true destination, not a stop along the way, and has been almost since the hotel, spa and restaurant opened in the 1980s. The words “local” and “seasonal” have become so overused as to be reduced to mere platitude but here it’s not words, it’s a philosophy. Almost everything that emerges from the kitchen, presided over by Lake House owner and culinary director Alla Wolf-Tasker and helmed by head chef David Green, has its origins there, including bread (made with Powlett Hill biodynamic spelt flour), cured meats and pickles. That which can’t be made is sourced from small local producers, many of whom have been cultivated by Wolf-Tasker: growers and makers turn up at the kitchen door with local lamb, heirloom pork and grass-fed beef; cheeses; fruit from old-growth orchards and vegies from local kitchen gardens.
Lunch and dinner always include a shared salad and petit fours – so hospitable – and guests can choose two to four courses from the menu or try the eight-course tasting option. The menu changes seasonally and may include dishes such as oxtail and marrow dumplings served with consommé and truffled butter brioche, Flinders Island lamb rump for two to share, and a Country Ramble: almond, berries, honey, chocolate and house-made elderflower and apple jelly.
Lunch daily 12pm-2.30pm; dinner 6pm-9pm
4 King Street, Daylesford; (03) 5348 3329
The port city of Geelong may seem an odd choice for a degustation-only restaurant helmed by the celebrated chef behind Drysdale’s late Loam. But Aaron Turner had a hunch: build it and they will come. He was right. He and Loam alumni turned co-owners Drew Hamilton and Jo Smith opened Igni in downtown Geelong in 2016. The experience – and it is an experience – is based around the charcoal grill, the spark and drama of which provides an entertaining backdrop to the understated dining room. The meal begins with an opening salvo of snacks. These are the same for every table and include crisp roasted chicken skin with salted cod roe, air-dried Wagyu, and more-ish salt-and-vinegar Point Henry saltbush.
A series of snacks at Igni. Image by Julian Kingma.
There’s no menu: choose either five or eight courses, discuss your needs and preferences with the waitstaff and await your fate. Currently, Turner tells us, diners “may or may not” feast on celeriac smoked for three days and served with wallaby broth, smoked Great Ocean duck with fire-roasted pickled radicchio and finger lime, and frozen flowering gum with Davidson plum and pine yoghurt. Turner has enough supplies for about 20 of each dish per night, so no two tables will receive the same line-up.
The sleek dining room at Igni. Image by Julian Kingma.
Ryan Place, Geelong; (03) 5222 2266
Dinner Thursday; lunch and dinner Friday-Saturday; lunch Sunday
Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld
The Dining Room at Dunkeld’s (pop. 461) The Royal Mail Hotel is always full. Despite the small town’s 283-kilometre distance from Melbourne and one tiny railway station, diners come in droves. Why? Well, a star chef (Brae’s Dan Hunter) put the restaurant on the map in 2008 with a daily-changing menu and a cellar of wines carefully and lovingly curated over 40 years. Now Brit chef Robin Wickens is putting his own spin on things, to great effect.
Alphabet Soup at The Royal Mail. Image supplied.
Choose from five or eight courses and expect superlative local produce (much of it from an enormous on-site organic kitchen garden) as interpreted by Wickens: blue eye with beans, peas, cultured cream and verbena served with a 2014 Patrick Piuze Chardonnay from Chablis; sirloin from the Royal Mail’s own farm served with ruby chard, plum and stout, and accompanied by a 1999 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste from Pauillac; a beguiling Toro Albalá Don PX Gran Reserva is served alongside a dessert of mulberry, cider custard, anise hyssop and brown-sugar ice-cream.
"Snails in their natural environment" from The Royal Mail. Image supplied.
And stay tuned: a renovation and a new 45-seat restaurant are being built at the rear of the property. Wickens at the Royal Mail Hotel is due to open in October 2017 while the Parker Street Project will move into the current dining room.
Dinner Wednesday-Sunday 6pm-10pm
98 Parker Street, Dunkeld; (03) 5577 2241
Du Fermier, Trentham
Each weekend, Annie Smithers assesses her stocks and crafts a French-provincial style carte du jour designed for long, convivial lunches around the bare wooden farmhouse tables. There’s no menu: Smithers has already chosen what she’ll be sending out of the kitchen – and it’s all, as promised, du fermier (from the farm). One course may be a delicate individual serve of duck Maryland with potato and cabbage; another could be an enormous bowl of just-picked leaves from the garden to share; a third could be a hearty pork loin cassoulet with golden crackling. Smithers is owner, chef and gardener at du Fermier and the one-acre plot she tends provides her kitchen with 90 per cent of its fresh produce for much of the year.
42 High Street, Trentham; (03) 5424 1634
The grand old Bank of Australasia building in which Provenance is housed was built in 1856 at the height of the gold rush era when an influx of riches created towns of incongruous grandeur. There’s still gold in them thar hills – only now it’s in the form of tender, house-made silken tofu and okara fritters with soymilk broth and ginger.
Smoked wallaby tartare with shio koji, egg yolk and miso sauce.
Owner/chef Michael Ryan concerns himself with the local in terms of produce but his menu displays a fascination with influences from further afield: there’s a definite focus on Japanese cuisine as well as proficiency in Spanish, French and Middle Eastern cooking techniques. Case in point: a starter of cured garfish with its fried bones; smoked wallaby tartare with radish, umeboshi, egg yolk and miso; and frozen fennel meringue, hazelnut pannacotta and apple. Since you’re driving, you might choose to stay a while.
Book in at the former stables, now converted into four chic suites and then head to the restaurant and order the eight-course degustation with matched wine for a thorough exploration of Ryan’s cooking.
Dinner Wednesday-Friday and Sunday 6:30pm-9pm; Saturday 6pm-9pm
86 Ford Street, Beechworth; (03) 5728 1786
Back in the day, every country town had a Chinese restaurant. Now, it’s more likely to be a pretty decent Thai, but Ballarat’s Catfish goes way beyond decent. We’re talking outstanding, game-changing, one-hat-earning Thai about 115 kilometres from Melbourne. It’s the work of Damien Jones, who learned his trade at David Thompson’s Nahm in London. You’ll find familiar items on the menu here – red curry, stir-fry – only the aromatic curry pastes are made from scratch, the coconut milk is house-made and the stir-fry is made using warrigal greens and cured pork.
Other dishes are completely unexpected, such as the salted, dried Wagyu with chilli and tamarind sauce, like a Thai jerky, and the turmeric wafer with coconut, prawns and peanuts. The menu is designed to share and on Saturday nights, diners are obliged to partake of the banquet menu – a true hardship, we’re sure.
Lunch Wednesday-Saturday from 12pm; dinner Tuesday-Saturday from 6pm
42-44 Main Road, Bakery Hill; (03) 5331 5248
Fen, Port Fairy
Fen refers to a low-lying, marshy coastal area. It’s a fitting name for a restaurant that celebrates native ingredients and foraged coastal greens on a menu that reads like a botanic garden who’s who. Husband-and-wife team Kirstyn and Ryan Sessions have created a restaurant that perfectly suits the well-heeled gastro-tourist. In historic Port Fairy, 288 kilometres west of Melbourne, Fen occupies the dining room at Seacombe House, a contemporary, comfortable space with a Nordic sensibility and pressed-tin ceilings.
The menu incorporates Australian ingredients – not as an afterthought or novelty but as a culinary direction that yields great results. Wattleseed turns up in a caramel that adorns a native nut and chocolate confection; paperbark shows its face in a smooth ice-cream; and sweet-tart Davidson plum lends itself to both a crab and macadamia starter and a burnt marshmallow dessert. There are eight- and five-course tasting menus, or try the very reasonable parallel carte – a main, a side and a bottle of wine.
Dinner Tuesday-Saturday 6pm-11pm
22 Sackville Street, Port Fairy; (03) 5568 3229
Petit Tracteur, Mornington Peninsula
French cooking is a balm to the road-weary soul – a soul-nourishing repast that, however copious the additions of butter, cream and duck skin can never, ever make you fat (ahem). From various vantage points at Petit Tracteur the views are of olive trees, vineyards and rolling hills, with the possibility of a boules match and a fluttering French flag. The dining room is light and airy with much greenery and proper bentwood chairs (the only appropriate seating option for a bistro).
Start with a pastis to whet the appetite before examining a menu replete with bistro classics: salad niçoise with slivers of just-seared tuna, waxy new potatoes and wedges of poached local egg; a modern take on duck l’orange, cooked sous vide then pan-fried to crisp the skin and served with a citrus sauce spiced with star anise; slices of rustic, hearty terrine piled onto slices of toasted sourdough; Pinnacle eye fillet steak frites with béarnaise. Sit at the bar for a snack: half a dozen oysters, say, or chicken liver pate with a glass of Ten Minutes By Tractor’s 10x Chardonnay.
There’s no need to detour from the French classics when it comes time for dessert either: a tarte Tatin made with buttery pastry, layered with sweet apple and glossily coated in a cinnamon-flecked caramel sauce – c’est magnifique!
Lunch Thursday-Monday 11am-5pm; dinner Friday-Saturday 6pm-11pm
1208 Mornington-Flinders Road, Main Ridge; (03) 5989 2510
Hogget Kitchen, Gippsland
Melburnians have long been willing to travel to Daylesford for a lunch and even as far as the southwest coast for dinner (well, for Brae, we’d go anywhere). Now Gippsland is the latest destination to exert its food force on city-folk thanks to Hogget, a restaurant, cellar door and winery on the grounds of Wild Dog Winery in Warragul, an easy drive down the M1. Apparently, Hogget is the name given to a lamb between weaning and first shearing but we couldn’t help but see the name as homage to the great Magda Szubanski (think about it: she played Mrs Hoggett in Babe and the nearby Strzelecki Ranges surely inspired the surname of her sweet, rashy Sharon in Kath and Kim).
It’s neither here nor there; Hogget’s owners, chef Trevor Perkins and winemakers William Downie and Patrick Sullivan, have more important things to do than elucidate the etymology of Hogget. Each day, Perkins designs his menu, based upon local ingredients he’s sourced and what’s at its peak. A sample menu might include house-cured, pickled and fermented goodies; a whole boned crisp-skinned Brandy Creek quail on a puy lentil salad; and quince and crabapple crumble with jersey milk ice-cream.
Over the weekend, the chef might pick up some whole local lambs from Guendulain Farm, which his dad Graham will butcher; fresh produce frequently comes from the garden of Perkins’ mum, Jennie. The wine list is a rundown of Downie and Sullivan’s best efforts –their next goal is to create wines using their own Gippsland grapes.
Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Sunday; breakfast Friday-Sunday from 8am
6 Farrington Close, Warragul; (03) 5623 2211