Alexandra Hotel

The Alex Hotel is one of those iconic country pubs that you pass on a trip as you slow to 50kph through a small town, and wonder ‘Should I have stopped there for lunch?’

Yes, you should have.

The hotel is a grand old white building which has established a bit of a reputation under successive owners – fun in the evenings if you’re staying nearby, and a solid option for breakfast or lunch if you’re passing. The new owners have introduced a clever take on old-fashioned pub dishes like fish and chips, with the welcome addition of crispy capers and a twist on the choice of  fish.

The owners have pedigree in running hospitality businesses, and it shows. They’ve been quick to step the menu and wine list up a notch, and the range of their own farm-gate produce on sale looks inviting.

Worth the stopover.

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.

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!

Little Lipari

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.

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.

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.

Mandala Wines

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.

Medhurst Wines

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.

Healesville Hotel Cellars and Harvest Coffee

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.

Sandra Bardas Gallery

We could tell you the facts about the Sandra Bardas Gallery – the opening times, the address, the fact that there is the most amazing collection of indigenous Australian artwork from both well known artists and up-coming students from Worowa Aboriginal College. We could say that it’s only five minutes out of Healesville, that the view to the nearby ranges is stunning, and that the people are amazingly friendly, knowledgable, and helpful. We could say it is named for Sandra Bardas OAM, who worked with the College founder in the establishment of Victoria’s only Aboriginal school.

We could write all these things, and we’d only be touching on the full story. It’s not just the fact that we’d have failed to describe the astonishing food experience we had, nor the amazing learning experience we had courtesy of staff and students from Worowa College. We’d have failed to convey the significance of this place.

We were welcomed on to the land that was part of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve, honouring the ancestors and all who have walked the land.

We were told the story of this place. It is Coranderrk. It is home to peoples of the Kulin nation, who sought a safe place to live when European colonisation threatened to end their civilisations. It was where governments herded groups of indigenous people from all over central Victoria. It was the home of Simon Wonga, who was the ngurunggaeta of his clan, a title which passed to his cousin William Barak. That huge face rendered in wobbly stripes on the side of the building on the old CUB site in the city – that’s William Barak. You need to come here, to be part of this place, to begin to understand why he’s on that building, why he’s so important.

Come here to see part of the story of the people of this land, to immerse yourself in the experience of the land, culture, art, and food, learn from the people of this land, and begin to understand.

Book a group and make a day of it.