The Little Mussel Cafe

What’s the next best thing to fresh mussels taken from the boat and served hot with just the right amount of your favourite flavours, and maybe a lager or two? How about sitting in a sweet little garden next to the shed where those mussels arrive just minutes after they come off the boat, doing exactly the same? Sounds just about perfect, doesn’t it.

The Little Mussel Cafe is a cute little shed and garden right next to the processing shed of Advance Mussel Supply in Portarlington. They cook mussels just right – so they are the soft little balls of perfection that they should be. Advance Mussel Supply are mussel and oyster farmers. You can get the latter from them too, when the timing is right; they’re also as they should be.

If you have in your group someone who struggles with shellfish, the menu has them covered. There are also ways for you to bring them around to the goodness of these ocean-found molluscs of joy. Purists always wince at the thought of any kind of cooking or overpowering flavours, but beginners will love the introduction. It’s only one or two steps away from getting into the heaven that is au naturel.

Frankie’s

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.

Avon Ridge Vineyard

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!

Badger and Hare

There’s a particular rush that comes from discovering somewhere new to get great coffee. The rush is compounded with no small amount of glee when you discover said coffee on a road trip a long way from home. Badger and Hare was a discovery of great joy for the OHO team. It’s the cutest little corner store on the highway in Stratford. You might know Stratford as one of the small towns you pass though on the way to Lakes Entrance. Now you have a reason to stop.

Old school buddies Liz and Mary are serving up simple, honest dishes that they love to eat. They’ve paid as much attention to the interiors as they have to the menu, and have gone to great lengths to ensure that their experience from time spent hanging out in inner Melbourne cafes is reflected in what they do at Badger and Hare. There are local goods and coffee to take home too.

Look for the yellow door on the right-hand side as you come into Stratford. Totally worth stopping.

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.

Yabby Lake

You might know Yabby Lake for its wines. The wines from winemaker Tom Carson are exquisite, and the subject of many a wine review containing rapturous hyperbole. The 2014 pinot noir quite famously won the Jimmy Watson Trophy – Australia’s most prestigious wine gong. It was the first pinot noir to do so.

The cellar door is a welcome breath of casual air, despite the lofty reputation of the wines. It’s a nice place to stand and taste a few of the award-winning wines while staring at either the sculpture collection, the view across the vineyards, or that Jimmy Watson Trophy in the cabinet. Take a little time to try the single block wines if you have the opportunity – they are a stunning lesson in terroir*.

The tasting is a lovely prelude to a long lunch. The menu is casual but sophisticated, the plates generous but refined.

There are few better ways to spend an afternoon than sitting in front of a view drinking some of Australia’s best wines, eating good food, and pondering the artworks. The Kirby family are well known patrons of the arts in Australia, and the collection at Yabby Lake is significant.

The attention to detail extends right to the end (or the beginning, depending on your preference) with expertly made Market Lane coffee.

* a French term which roughly translates as ‘the influence of all things local to a place upon the end product’.

Blue Pyrenees

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.

Tooboorac Hotel and Brewery

Is there anything as country as a proper country pub? The Tooboorac is the genuine article. There’s a bar, a small dining room and a function room, but that’s not the story here, or even the reason to detour and spend a little time immersed in its rustic charms. There are two compelling arguments to stop here – beer and pies.

The beer is all brewed on site in the micro-brewery out the back (by an appropriately bearded brewer). With so many beers to taste, it’s worth putting some time aside. The names are intriguing invitations to try, such as ‘Cashed Up Summer Ale’, ‘Gunslinger’, ‘Blacksmiths’, and more. During warmer months the ‘Beerbulance’ makes regular trips to festivals, markets and food van parks with its kegs of delight. Try it there, then pop out to the hotel for a beer and a pie.

Oh, the pies. These are no ordinary pastries with a random meat reference. Lamb and Shiraz, Rabbit, Beef and Ale, to name just three.

Worth the detour.

Fowles Wines

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.

 

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.