Little Prince Eating House and Bar

Walking into Little Prince in Traralgon was, to put it mildly, a surprise. You could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled upon Chin Chin’s little brother. It has that busy, diner-esque vibe with bustling staff, tiles on the walls, and a bit of quirkiness. The quirk carries to the menu, with a solid hint of dude-food. Pinch yourself for the reminder that this is Traralgon, on the way to Lakes Entrance, not Melbourne or Sydney. Dishes like the crab sliders – with legs out the sides, about to walk off – bring a sense of humour to the place, as well as deliciousness. The salmon sashimi was fresh and clean, like it should be. Salted caramel and popcorn ice-cream was designed to kill, as it should.

The cocktail list includes proper alcohol-free alternatives, a welcome sight for some. The cocktail and wine list is extensive and well sourced.

Noble Monks

Shepparton is not blessed with street after street of stunning gold-rush architecture like, say, Ballarat. So the enterprising and stylish types here have to take a different approach. At Noble Monks it’s the semi-industrial bare brick and steel vibe. It works. You’re instantly reminded of your regular Yarraville haunts. The coffee here is from Bean Around – roasted locally by John at the Last Straw. The menu is driven by fresh local fruit and veg.

We had corn fritters made fresh – this is generous country hospitality. Big fritters with a soft poached egg.

Local seasonal fruit is the kind of fresh and easy breakfast you want in the country. When you go to the ocean you want fresh fish. When you go inland to the state’s food-bowl you want fresh grown produce.

A selection of humorously named,  deliciously fresh juices keeps the morning healthy and clean. There are good beers on tap and a respectable wine list if you have other ideas.

Gladioli

Note: Gladioli is now known as Inverleigh Cellar and Kitchen.

On a road trip, there are places you come across on your way somewhere. Indeed, that’s part of why OHO exists – so you can find good stuff on the way to where you’re going. Then there are places that you take a road trip to get to. They are the destination.

Gladioli in Inverleigh is a destination. It’s food experiences like this, in this sleepy highway town, that make you want to drive around Victoria on a quest. Awarded two Chefs Hats in the 2015/16 Age Good Food Guide, Gladioli is helping turn what was already one of Victoria’s best food-production regions into one of Victoria’s best eating regions. Other passionate people are being inspired to open up nearby, and the little hamlet of Inverleigh is turning into a must-go place for food lovers.

Jones Wines

Mandy Jones is a fifth-generation winemaker. She’s been making wines in her self-described “modernist” style in Rutherglen since she and her brother Arthur took over the business from their uncle in the late 90s.

The history lesson begins as soon as you walk in to the cellar-door building at Jones Wines. The handmade bricks and bark slab roof hint at the legacy carried on by Mandy and her brother.

The wines here are rich in full-fruit flavour, but show balance with acid and tannin. Look for the ‘Correll’, named for their mother. It’s a vermouth-style aperitif, with beautifully fragrant botanicals. We also had a pannacotta made with this drink, which blew our minds.

The restaurant opens for French-style lunches, but also provides picnic hampers for the romantic.

Tinamba Hotel

When Damian was a kid, he wanted to buy the lolly shop. So it makes sense that as an adult he bought the pub in his home town of Tinamba. A short detour off the road from Maffra, it’s worth the trip.

A pub has been on this site since 1874. Although various renovations and incarnations over the years have seen some changes, the bones are still visible. It’s everything you want from a country town pub – something you turned off the beaten path for. In fact, the pub has become something of a destination. Counted among regulars are local cattle farmers and folks from leafy suburbs alike. The menu says “simple delicious, local produce”, and the execution says “we love what we do here”. It’s beautiful, and still comfortable. With menus that change with produce availability, expect to have something different every time.

The pub has fast become the hub for all things food and wine in the area. The Tinamba Food and Wine Festival is worth looking out for at the end of April. Speaking of the festival (and indicative of the pub’s commitment to local), as a special, the garden has been producing spectacular cauliflowers that will feature in a dish just for that day. The day we were there the fig tree was laden, so figs were being used throughout the menu. The garden is small, but growing. It has the promise of a delicious kitchen garden to cap off an already great country pub.

De Bortoli Yarra Valley

Amongst the hundreds of winemaking families in Australia, there are   the ‘First Families’ – those pioneers who shaped the way Australia makes and drinks the nectar of the gods.  All have generations of grape growing, squishing, fermenting, bottling and drinking to their names. Think McWilliams, Tyrrells, Tahbilk and De Bortoli.

Leanne De Bortoli brought the family name down to Victoria from Griffith in the late ’80s; she and her partner and the business’s chief winemaker Steve Webber have been living the ‘good wine, good food, good friends’ mantra. Three unique vineyards supply distinct fruit which expresses its sense of place. Steve has a passion for making wines that taste like where they’re from. For the lesson in terroir alone, you should book a private tasting experience.

The restaurant on site, ‘Locale’, sings from the same mantra song-sheet. Local produce (some of it grown just out the window next to the vineyard) combines with a slightly formal but definitely casual atmosphere. It’s like going to your fancy Nonna’s house for a big family meal with loads of great Italian food, more wine than you probably should have had, and laughs aplenty.  Except Nonna is a chef. And has staff. And a cellar door down stairs. Oh, and a cheese shop. Dear Lord, do not forget the formaggio. There’s a great selection of extraordinary cheeses, matured right there, available as platters, tasting plates to go with the wine tastings at the bar, or for taking home.

Yering Station

There’s something lovely about plated single dishes from an à la carte menu, and professional, attentive service. In contrast to the ‘all dishes on the table, share the love’ approach, there’s an almost quiet, contemplative joy in studying the menu, ordering for yourself, and then talking with your company about all the elements in your meal as it comes out.

The Rathbone family have been custodians of this vineyard and property since the mid ’90s, though there has been wine made here before then. Very good wine, in fact. The Ryrie brothers, then the De Castella family, made some impressive red wines here. Sadly, with the destruction of the wine industry from a little bug called phylloxera, the property moved to other agricultural practices. The vision of a few pioneers in the 1970s and ’80s saw the first returns to grape growing and winemaking.

Of course, at the cellar door you can sample the excellent wines made on site by chief winemaker Willy Lunn. The cellar door is one of the older buildings on site, formerly the winery from 1859. Now it does triple-duty as cellar door, gallery and produce store. The produce is a representation of the monthly farmers market held in the barn. It’s all local, all lovely.  The gallery showcases artworks from emerging artists and also hosts the annual Yering Sculpture Prize. Money from the gallery’s sale commissions go to the Children’s Leukaemia charity, Larch – a long-standing Rathbone family commitment.

All that makes for interesting conversation over a meal at tables set in a mighty glass, stone and steel structure overlooking the rolling green pastures, vineyards, hills, and skies until tomorrow. When the food arrives at the table, you’ll be tempted to whip out the phone and Instagram it, but resist the urge. Just take in the view, the setting, and the beauty, and re-post someone else’s picture.

 

La Bimba

When you’re staying in a seaside village, one of the great joys is sitting with a view of the ocean, eating fresh seafood with a glass of whatever takes your fancy. La Bimba’s upstairs view of the water beyond the foreshore is superb, and it really does make sense that this beautiful food came from just over there.

Chef Steve Earl is Western Victoria born and bred. His passion for local producers doing small interesting things is writ large on his face when he talks about the friends and suppliers of La Bimba. The couple who started a duck and chicken farm, the guy who grows native limes, the guy who rings him in the middle of the afternoon and says ‘Hey, I caught some fish you might be interested in’. As we walk down the pier after collecting fish that are considered ‘by-catch’ of another industry, he expresses his disbelief that everyone isn’t doing this. ‘I mean, the sea is right there, the people who work it are right here – it’s mad that there are so few doing what I do!’

Steve’s food is just beautiful. The best way to enjoy it is with a bunch of friends, and a table full of  dishes to share. A whole fish with Sichuan pepper, coriander seed and ginger with a touch of sourness from raspberry vinegar, is gorgeous. The ceviche made from that by-catch collected off the pier just a few hours earlier is the pinnacle of restraint and beauty. Paella is made the right way, with the freshest fish, calamari, and the perfect crunchy rice on the bottom. Every element is carefully considered, including the small curated wine list.

La Bimba is definitely the food highlight of Apollo Bay. Don’t miss.

Catfish Thai

Finding a good Thai restaurant is one of life’s great joys. The flavours, aromas and textures, all in balance and presented with skill and joy – it’s something you write home about when you find it. Dear Mum, I found the best Thai yesterday. It’s amazing, and you’d love it.

Catfish Thai is the brainchild of chef Damien Jones. If you’re familiar with the work of David Thompson (Nahm), then knowing that Damien earnt his chops with David should be enough to have you running to make room in the diary. You might want to skip the pencil and go straight for the pen as you make a date to take in the experience of Damien’s food. The way Damien cooks takes a lot of work, and it shows. The attention to detail extends from sourcing fresh and local ingredients, to creating all those sauces and flavours that prompt writers to add the word ‘authentic’ to their description.

The menu is designed for filling the table with beautiful dishes and sharing them. Fun, and disappointment-free. The food becomes the centre of conversation as diners discover flavours together – and there’s plenty to talk about here. Saturday nights are a banquet. Or degustation if that’s a word you prefer.  It’s the chef’s selection of a generous number of dishes and is ridiculously good value.

Wines on the list are well considered. Usually a beer is a no-brainer with spicy cuisine like this (and the Catfish beer list includes some crackers), but don’t be shy of going for a wine. A crisp rosé is an easy pair for fresh chilli. Don’t forget that cool-climate reds can carry spicy notes of their own, and the knowledgable staff will happily help you select from the well-considered list if a heavier drop is your thing.

Thailand is a small hop for the South East Asian traveller, and most return home waxing lyrical about the food. Whilst Ballarat isn’t going to offer the same hyper night life, Catfish has got the food experience well and truly covered. Oh, and to answer that lingering question – yes, they do takeaway. A hatted restaurant that does takeaway.

Mitchell Harris Wines

The Mitchell and Harris families grew up in the Ballarat region. You could argue that they were early instigators of the food revolution off the main drag (Sturt St) in town. The last few years have seen the likes of Catfish, Meigas and the Mitchell Harris cellar door/bar open up and make Ballarat a foodie destination.

The Mitchell Harris style is of relaxed industrial and historic chic, and is at once familiar and fun. It’s a place you can spend a whole Friday night getting lost in a detailed exploration of your friend’s holiday recommendations over several bottles of whatever it takes to make that sound interesting.  It’s a place for meeting up with your best friend to laugh about that time you couldn’t remember that thing you did together, and order the Sabre sparkling, complete with the actual sabring of the bottle. All the Mitchell Harris wines are of course made in the company’s own winery. They’re good. Really good. There are some fabulously sessional wines in there, perfect for the formerly referred-to Friday evening.

If you’re not content with just drinking the wine someone else made for you, you could enrol in the Curious Winemaker workshop. Over the course of several visits through the season, make your own wine: from grapevine to bottle. Don’t worry, you’re not left to your own devices. You’ll be under the expert guidance of winemaker John Harris, and with him make all the critical decisions along the way to produce a decent drop you can call your own.

Mitchell and Harris is also a place to eat. A bloody good one. The food is comfortable and brings on all the requisite ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhhs’.