Oakdene

You’ve got to love a venue that has you smiling before you step out of the car. Oakdene will have you tilting your head and chuckling. It looks like a huge wind pushed it over, and they just decided to run with a cellar door on its side! There’s so much to look at, and the experience you have will vary according to how much time you’ve got on your hands and what kind of food you feel like. Honestly, you could start with breakfast in the cafe, spend some time in the garden walking through the sculptures, and squeeze in a full wine tasting before a lazy lunch in the restaurant.

The restaurant is decorated much like the entire property, in living technicolour and with liberal splashings of artwork. It’s a quirky place to sit and eat food as sophisticated as these chefs present. Dishes like the lamb, for example – slow-cooked for ages and falling apart in glorious stickiness. The Oakdene William Shiraz is perfect with it. The house-cured trout has just the right texture. All produce is local where possible, and it shows in the freshness of the dishes.

Definitely worth a detour if you’re in the area.

Merne at Lighthouse

Just to clear things up from the beginning: for the hard-core foodies who remember Loam and its two hats at this venue, Merne at Lighthouse is totally different. Don’t expect fussy degustations or cerebral menus. Merne is an altogether more casual affair. Chef Josh Smith uses that word, ‘casual’, too – but it’s clear from the food that he didn’t earn his chops at Macca’s. His CV includes The Royal Mail, Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, and Tulip Bar and Restaurant.

Merne at Lighthouse is the kind of project OHO loves. Former chef and owner of Gladioli Matt Dempsey, Graham Smith of Tulip, chef Josh Smith, and manager Caleb Fleet are like some sort of Marvel Comics superhero dream team. That they have decided on a casual approach to bloody amazing food is refreshing. It’s also a smash hit as far as nailing the concept.

The best way to eat at Merne is the chef’s grazing menu. Expect a table full of beautiful food to share. Sure, the experience is casual, but the word belies the care, thought and skill that goes into preparing food this lovely.

Chateau Tahbilk

The area around Tahbilk, just outside Nagambie in Central Victoria, is a unique little pocket of land almost surrounded by the Goulburn River and eight kilometres of permanent backwaters and creeks. The Purbrick family first planted vines here in 1860, and some of those vines are still producing fruit for their ‘1860’ shiraz today.  The location adjacent to so much water has enough impact on the climate that the grape-growing creates flavours unique to the region. The French would name this little area for its own ‘appellation’, as a result.

Tahbilk’s historic winery and cellar door is an experience in itself. The ancient oak fermenters in the cellar door are not just for show. This is a working winery, using equipment that in some cases is over a hundred years old.

The restaurant on site is modern by comparison, and the food equally so. It’s a menu of sure-fire winners and crowd pleasers. Who can say no to the perfect pork belly or luscious little lumps of slow-cooked beef, pulled, pressed, crumbed and deep-fried. Ooh la la. A 2014 shiraz from the Estate was a sublime pairing with the beef.

Definitely take the short detour off the highway near Nagambie, and drop in for lunch and a lesson in the history of winemaking. Don’t forget to spend some time walking around the pristine wetlands at Tahbilk. There’s eight kilometres of waterfront, and a boat tour that’s totally worth the time. Tahbilk has a commitment to sustainability and carbon neutrality that is leading the way for the wine industry.

Ten Minutes by Tractor

Earning ‘hats’ in the restaurant trade is a vexed thing. It can become an obsession for those who just can’t quite make the grade. But the reality is, for those who have ‘it’, ‘the knack’, ‘the x-factor’ – it just happens. Ten Minutes by Tractor has all of that, and sitting down to one of the memorable lunches of a lifetime, it felt like things happened easily. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable, the staff cheerful and courteous.

Obviously, this appearance belies the preparation and hard work that actually goes on to make it look easy. Chef Stuart Bell has been perfecting the food here for nine years, and before that with the likes of Phillipe Mouchel, Langtons and Liberté, and Alain Fabrègues at Loose Box, as well as Jacques Reymond. His food is an exercise in yin and yang, a balancing act. It’s visually stunning, and the chef’s philosophy is apparent in the flavours.

Of course, the food is only half the picture at Ten Minutes by Tractor. Equal attention is paid to the creation of cold-climate wines of great quality. Leave a little extra time to go through the whole range. The Estate wines age beautifully, so it’s worth taking home more than one, because they’re hard to keep for too long without opening.

Port Phillip Estate

It’s an unassuming introduction to Port Phillip Estate, through a door that feels a little bit industrial and a little bit James Bond. It opens out into the most extraordinary view across the fields to the ocean, with cellar door and casual bistro to the right, and more formal restaurant to the left.

There is a kind of curious dissonance in the slightly casual chairs and the formal settings, the friendliness of the staff and the formality of the restaurant fit-out. It’s like the formality has been dialled down in a venue where the quality has been dialled way up. It’s a feeling that carries through to the food. It’s hard to describe the visceral experience of sitting in front of such beautiful food. It’s an exercise in the balance of beautiful presentation without overshadowing the beautiful produce. Desserts are a stunning display of skill, but still don’t overshadow the produce they’re made from. That produce is locally sourced wherever possible, and the menu is seasonal.

The cellar-door experience is worth leaving a little extra time for. The wines of the estate are renowned for their quality.

For those wanting a little more time to take it all in, the accommodation is spectacular and shares that view across the fields to the ocean.

Source Dining

Returning to this establishment was like coming home to the open arms of beautiful old friends, even after the passage of several years, a change of ownership, and a change of name.

The former Annie Smithers Bistrot of Piper St, Kyneton, is one of those revered country establishments. We found the wonderfully understated dining room just as we left it; the wine list has only improved, and the food from chef and new owner Tim Foster is truly worthy of its Good Food Guide hat.

We had the best hospitality experience here: greeted warmly, waited on with joy and professionalism, given stunning wine suggestions – and all before we’d had any food.

The same ‘Source’ refers to the provenance of the food. It’s definitely a seasonal produce–driven menu. Much of that produce comes from Tim’s garden, planted and grown with love at his home in Sedgewick. The small potager garden at the restaurant serves as a reminder of this, as well as being a practical place to fetch herbs during service. In summer months, long dinners in the garden would be stunning. Everything we ate – risotto, duck, ice-creams – it was all just so goddamn beautiful. Stunning to look at, and delicious in every way. Kyneton is lucky to have a local like this. Go there.

Deirdre’s

All good destination food venues have something unique. It could be the view, the remote location, or the proximity to something else amazing. All have one thing in common. Someone had the audacity to stick an unmissable culinary experience in a location that’s off the beaten track.  Deirdre’s is the definition of all of that. Literally in the middle of an olive grove, up a track, somewhere in the wilds outside of Horsham at the base of one of those stunning rock escarpments. It’s also unmissable.

Everywhere we went in Horsham, people asked us if we were going to Deirdre’s, and how much time we’d allowed. Deirdre defines hospitality in the true sense of the word, not as an industry. Food comes when she’s cooked it. She brings it out to you. It’s bloody fantastic. So are the wines, the majority of which are local. You don’t come here for a quick bite to eat – and why would you. The location is enough to slow your world right down. Drink a few vinos, munch on the bread with the property’s own olive oil, and just chill.

Deirdre’s food is simple, full of flavour, and beautifully executed. She uses great produce, and just lets it do the talking. Confit duck and cauliflower puree is just that, and sublime. Vegans are well catered for with a dish of lentils and many garden veg, pickles, and herbs. This accidental chef knows how to turn up the natural flavours. (Deirdre says she kind of fell into it, because she liked to cook a bit.)

Deirdre’s, the quirky shed in the middle of an olive plantation, is well worth the detour. Just book, and allow some time to relax and go with the flow.

Baa 3400

Horsham has some compelling reasons to stay and eat— Baa 3400 is one of the best. Located in the light-filled space at the front of the Horsham Regional Art Gallery, Baa 3400 is filled by a large shared table (though not the only seating option), and promises ‘memorable dining experiences’. Memorable is the right word, in the best of ways.

Hugh and Nicole Goldson say they never really intended to stay on in Horsham after a stint managing the restaurant at a well-known Horsham hotel, but the opportunity ‘just kind of presented itself’. It’s a good thing that it did – the food is killer. The right balance of hearty and fresh, the menu is tight and focused. There are small bar plates, larger meal plates, and some in between. It’s all designed for sharing, though there’s no shame in keeping all that sticky lamb shoulder to yourself, or polishing off all the scallops before anyone else gets a look-in.

Where possible, everything is sourced locally. Hugh reminded us that even the ocean is not really that far away, if you point the car at Port Fairy.

One unique concept was the bold statement made by their putting on just the one beer. It’s brewed especially for Baa 3400, and is rather good. The wine list is a nice mix from around the Grampians and further afield. Be sure to book – it can get busy, especially when the gallery has a show on.

The Duck Inn

Marysville hadn’t had a pub for a while when Ashraf and Christine decided that they would answer the call of the community and build one. It has been a ground-up build of a brand new business from the former owners of the famous Marysville Patisserie.

The heart of any good local pub are the locals who frequent it. Head here to have a fun dinner out with the folks of Marysville. Stand around the fire or at the bar and share a drink or two –  there are regional beers on tap and wines from nearby on the list. The menu is classic pub, handled with precision by the international chef. With her passion for pastry, desserts made by Christine are worth travelling for. Be warned though, it’s worth booking your table ahead if you’re coming up on a weekend.

Ashraf and Christine describe The Duck Inn as their gift to the community that stood behind them and supported their business for so long. It’s certainly a well-appreciated one among tourists and locals alike. Music nights are a hoot, with some great bands on the bill. Stay tuned to the Facebook page for information about these.

Mitchelton Wines

When you make your way up the long driveway into Mitchelton Wines, it only takes moments to be struck by the large tower that looks out across the vineyards. The driveway cuts through the coincidentally named vineyard, Airstrip, which echoes the airport control-tower aesthetic of the property’s iconic building. It’s a coincidence that makes you smile.

Students of architecture will spend the whole day smiling out here, not just because of the wines and the stunning food, but because of the great Robin Boyd’s recognisable building design. Sadly, Boyd passed away before the completion of the project, but Ted Ashton finished the build and the tower to complete Boyd’s vision.

Wines from this region of Central Victoria are typically powerful and full bodied. Expect lush fruit flavour for days, to go with your architectural smiles and your lunch of seasonal Goulburn River Valley produce from Muse Restaurant.

If a lighter option or cheeky breakfast is your preference, the Ministry of Chocolate Cafe is worth a visit in its own right. Speaking of chocolate, where’s the emoji for drooling? Some of the finest Belgian couverture chocolate is crafted into all kinds of things you’ll want to take home, but will probably just eat on the way.