OHO has been to loads of small cellar doors that started out in sheds as a way of selling the small-batch boutique wines the passionate owners make. As venues go, Avon Ridge is best described as a shed conversion that got out of hand – in a good way. It’s been transformed into a stylish open restaurant that accommodates casual diners and event-goers alike. The sprawling lawn, which flows into the very vines the excellent wines are taken from, is a wonderful place to sit on a blanket or lawn chair and lose an afternoon.
The local produce that goes into the food at Avon Ridge is treated with care and imagination. The food is simple, subtle and tasty. The menu is cleverly marked with the best wine matches, and dishes are perfect for filling a table and sharing with others. If you’re overstocked with bounty from your own garden, drop by and swap it for something from their produce wall. The chefs love to make specials from the local, seasonal stuff that people bring by!
Great restaurant names are like rings on a stranger’s fingers – they all have a story, and you need to find out what those stories are. Lipari is a little town off the coast of Sicily, and chef/owner Joe’s mother was from there. She was also the inspiration behind the opening of this place. Joe was a latecomer to commercial kitchens – following a dream, he quit his job of many years. Little Lipari is a labour of love, a passion for food and a show of humble hospitality, inspired by his mother.
Little Lipari is classic Italian generous hospitality, and it’s goddamn awesome. Joe takes seasonal produce (and the stuff his adoring customers bring him) and packs flavour into simple Italian dishes. The gnocchi is iconic, a true classic. Joe makes a light lemony hollandaise for his take on eggs Benedict with bartered lemons from a customer.
Coffee at Lipari is a classic Italian thing too – a typically dark and luscious roast.
The fit-out was inspired by local legend Tank, whose artwork adorns the town of Shepparton, most recognisably in the form of colourful fibreglass cows.
French brandy giant Remy Martin established the vineyards just out of Avoca in the 1960s. It’s an area that was named the Pyrenees in the time-honoured colonial manner of new places that reminded the explorer (in this case Mitchell) of somewhere in the old world. The area is classed as a cold-climate region, and wines from here display those sought-after characteristics. Shiraz has a fragrant peppery note, pinot noir is powerful but still elegant.
The estate has a casual easy-going cafe, with outdoor areas that are perfect for losing a few hours with friends. The simple fare is, of course, the perfect foil to the wines. It’s pretty easy to get lost in a bottle of the excellent sparkling Midnight Cuvée, sitting in the shade on a sunny day.
Wines are really reasonably priced. A visit to the cellar door is a great opportunity to stock up on a cheeky dozen.
OHO is as much about the little guys as we are about the headline acts. We love to find the not-so-well-known places doing excellent things and share them with you like little secrets. Mandala Wines was one of those finds. Yes, it’s on the Melba Highway outside of Yarra Glen, but you were probably distracted by the bigger vineyards over the road. Yes, it has a stunning corten-steel building, but you were probably looking at the larger constructions and wineries on the other side too. So, Charles Smedley’s Mandala Wines is like this little gift hidden amongst some of the well respected larger players. But, don’t be fooled by the size; the wines punch well above their weight, and the venue will delight and surprise guests who planned on a quick stop but find themselves staying a while.
There’s a substantial restaurant on-site too, and it is well respected in the region for good Italian-style food inside or on the huge lawn overlooking the vines. However, lets stay focussed here and talk wines. They are all made from grapes grown on the estates at Dixons Creek and Yarra Junction. Everything in the vineyards is about maximising the potential for quality wines. The vines are hand-pruned, the grapes are hand-picked. In the winery, batches are small and carefully tended by winemaker Don Pople. The Yarra is known for Pinot and Chardonnay, and Mandala does not disappoint. Perhaps the aromatic and elegant Cabernet Sauvignon in all it’s inky gloriousness is the surprise, but serves as a wonderful reminder that Cabernet was here before Pinot or Chardonnay. The clever Coravin system of preserving open bottles of wine means that the reserve wines are available for tasting too.
Just off the Maroondah Highway, tucked up against the Warramate Hills, sits the winery, restaurant and cellar door of Medhurst Wines. The long driveway winds up the hill, past the red shed on the dam, past significant sculptures perched elegantly on the lawn, to the architecturally designed building which overlooks the picturesque close view. This part of the experience alone is worth the trip.
Medurst is the ‘retirement project’ (if you could call such hard work retirement) of ex Southcorp CEO Ross Wilson and his wife Robyn. It’s a family business, executed in a thoroughly professional manner. Every detail on the property is carefully considered: from the wave of the vast front glass on the cellar door, to the way a winery of considerable size is perfectly nestled into the hillside.
Speaking of detail, winemaker Simon Steele is all about the details. The Yarra Valley Pinot Noir is a fine expression of the fruit; bright cherry balanced with weight and complex spice notes. The Rosé, a perennial fave and often on the ‘Pink List’ at the Healesville Hotel, is dry, savoury and so so drinkable.
With the newly renovated kitchen and dining area comes a new chef. Robin Sutcliffe brings his quiet, uncompromising passion for doing simple things right to Medhurst. The pickles, which provide a delicate acidic balance on platters and other dishes, are all made by him in-house. Simple dishes like arancini are elevated with his deft touch. Grazing food, dishes of deliciousness, and damn fine wines mean that a long slow lunch under the shade, overlooking the vines, makes so much sense.
Michael Kennedy and Kylie Balharrie have made something of a foodie haven precinct in Healesville. It’s anchored by the lasting favourite, Healesville Hotel, with food by Chris Twogood still kicking goals as he continues experiments with local produce and cooking with fire. (Hint: weekend BBQ – get on it!)
The headline here, though, is the recently renovated alleyway and new wine bar. Harvest Coffee serves Genovese coffee at the hole-in-the-wall counter from 8am every day. The selection of house-made pastries, toasties, cakes and slices is simple, and everything is made to be delicious, first and foremost. If you want lunch, don’t fret: the entire Healesville Hotel lunch menu is available to order from the hole in the wall, too. The poached chicken Asian salad is a standout for the health-conscious, and the seasonal beetroot and lentil dish is an earthy bomb of beautiful flavours.
The Cellars are a new venture. Michael says it’s a mix of local and imported wine, and even some of his own cellar stocks. We spotted some rare gems like a vintage bottle of Wantirna Estate chardonnay on the shelf. You can order by the glass; or, for a corkage fee, take a retail-priced bottle and a couple of glasses into the garden for a lazy afternoon in the shade. There are some true undiscovered winners in the extensive wine selection. Three standouts would have to be the Scope Fiano (light, bright, zingy: summer in a glass), Aller Trop skin-contact pinot gris (the ideal rosé that isn’t rosé), and One Block chardonnay (funky and interesting, by Jayden Ong). Of course, by the time you read this, these wines might not be on the list anymore. That’s the joy of a boutique cellar like this one – wines come and go, and there’s always something new.
There’s plenty of room for you and your friends, and dogs are welcomed on-lead in the garden. There are choices for non-meat-eaters, as well as the food that comes off that stunning wood-fired BBQ. On weekends the garden caravan bar opens up too, and with three places to place your order, it’s never a long queue at the bar for a beverage.
Warragul is home to Frankie’s, a stylish cafe serving tasty food and great coffee. They’re open for breakfast and lunch, although the three happiest words on the menu might well be ‘All Day Breakfast’.
Frankie’s does this ‘get your day cranking’ concept well. The portions are generous and the dishes are well thought through. Produce is local where possible, and seasonal by preference. The baristas are kept busy, especially at peak times, and the coffee is a traditional Italian-style roast which is dark and rich.
Frankie’s is justifiably proud of its rapid growth. Since opening a 40-square metre shop, by the time you read this they will be operating out of a space 10 times that size. There’s a hunger (pardon the pun) for good simple food with a bit of style, and clearly Frankie’s is providing for it.
Here at OHO, we don’t like to play favourites or single out any particular experience. Foxey’s Hangout at Red Hill is our favourite, and a singularly fabulous experience. Hey – rules are made to be broken, right?
Owner Tony says that he ‘didn’t come here to run a restaurant’, and it follows that the combination of cellar door and food service is fun and unique. It’s compact and casual, and the menu is an exercise in minimalist attention to detail. It’s a bit like great minimalist architecture: if you’re going to put up super-simple dishes, they have to be precise and perfect. Tick. The quail, for instance, is simple pan-fried legs, made for picking up and sucking the meat off the bones. They are cooked to perfection, unsullied by technique, and addictively delicious.
Tony is rigid and focussed in his approach to Foxey’s Hangout. You can’t book a group, he doesn’t do events. It’s for casual dropping in and hanging out, and it’s all the better for this simplicity.
Foxey’s Hangout wines continue this focussed approach. Nothing is rushed. You can learn this at one of their sparkling wine–making workshops. The DIY approach to things like bottling means that it can take time to get the job done, but Tony’s not worried. It’s a ‘nicer time’ than running about madly for a day with an industrial portable bottling line contractor. But let’s face it, we don’t really care about the bottling. We care about what’s in the bottle. Sauvignon blanc drinkers will love the pinot gris. Anyone will love the Kentucky pinot noir.
The Healesville Hotel is placed right in the middle of the town, built in Edwardian style c1920 and refurbished in the late 1990’s, it is a real social hub for the local town folk and a popular watering hole for visitors to the Yarra Valley.
Head chef Chris Toogood grew up on a sheep farm in SA and this background shows in the way he seeks out quality local produce. Timbarra chicken, O’Connors Gippsland beef and pork are cooked over red gum with simple garnishes and light sauces that allow the natural flavours to take a front seat.
The beer garden has got to be one of the best in the state; the dining room: dark, warm and filled with nostalgia. The original front bar is perfect for sampling subregional Valley wines in front of a warming fire.
No matter where you take a table, it’s about relaxed dining, not fussy, just sharing dishes, swapping sides, stealing chips — while in the background the kitchen staff pick herbs from the garden and keep the coals burning under the wood-fire grill.
Sitting down with four glasses of wine, each matched to the perfect food companion, might be the new definition of awesome. This is the Fowles Wines ‘Gamekeeper’s Lunch’. You get the impression that there is a tweed-wearing employee out the back who’s handy with a 12-gauge shotgun and skilled in the art of delicate food preparation.
Smoked eel has one of those flavours that when you speak of it, your memory plays tricks and you feel as though you’re tasting it. The fellow out back has paired it with a riesling which is focused and acidic, with balanced fruit. Rabbit rillette is meaty and flavoursome, matched to a fresh zippy chardonnay.
Duck and pinot noir are best friends – maybe even lovers. In this pairing the confit duck is crispy and full of flavour, and the pinot is elegant, savoury and beautifully rounded.
The finale is beetroot chutney and kangaroo. It’s the OMG moment. Earthy, sticky, charred and delicious. The shiraz is jammy and generous to match.