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.
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.
On many trips to the Gippsland Lakes, Traralgon was a way-point for fuel and a quick bite. Momo and the few others of its ilk popping up are going to make you want to stay a while longer, or even plan a town excursion if you’re staying at this end of the lakes.
The owner and manager of Momo took us straight up to the rooftop outdoor lounge. In the evening this area is fun and lively with friends catching up over a drink. Back downstairs, the food is good, simple bistro-style fare. We marvelled at the extraordinary milkshake creations from Xavier. If you value stable blood-sugar levels, take a friend to help you get through one of these. We love the commitment these guys make to local social issues too, with their amazing employment and training program. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t change any flavours, but may just make things taste better.
High-wires, swinging bridges, and zip-lines. It’s tempting to say ‘Not for those afraid of height’, or ‘Not for the feint-of-heart’. Actually, if that describes you, then LiveWire in Lorne is absolutely for you. It’s super-challenging to face your fear of heights, but oh gosh, the rewards for giving it a go and succeeding are so worth it.
The concept of a high ropes courses is not a new one. You might recall it from school camps, where you climbed a few metres in the air and walked across a wire or took a zip-line flying-fox ride through the trees. What’s new about LiveWire is the sheer scale and audacity of the build. There are three circuits plus a zip-coaster ride. The Canopy circuit is free with your basic entry-fee to the park, and is a series of swing bridges in a loop that takes in the treetops of the famous Otway Forest’s tall timbers, ten metres off the ground. It’s peaceful, and only the sounds of wildlife and of people enjoying other adventures punctuate the sound of the breeze in the leaves.
The Short Circuit and the Super Circuit are designed to challenge you in different and ever-increasing degrees. The Super Circuit is well worth the (mental and physical) effort required for the two hours it takes to complete. There are 53 mid-air trails, bridges, and swings to negotiate. Then there’s the zip-coaster. It’s one of the biggest in the world at 525 metres long, and it’s fun to see different people’s reactions to the hard turns, drops, and the force of gravity. Not as much fun as taking the ride for yourself though!
Standing high in the canopy, safely harnessed with no way of falling any further than your short tie-line, you could take a little time to consider the tiny environmental impact of this remarkable installation, or the bright future for eco-tourism. Honestly though, you’re probably just having the time of your life.
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.
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.
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’.
Spain calls like the voice of a food-obsessed friend. ‘Hey, we should do a tapas bar crawl!’ The friend makes a valid argument. When in Ballarat, the tapas begins at Meigas.
The idea of tapas is that you can put together an entire meal by eating a collection of small tasty things. The menu at Meigas fits that bill perfectly. The hung cured meats in a specialist fridge over the top of the bar, the Spanish beers, the details on the walls – it all adds to the Spanish vibe. It’s part of the niche food scene in Ballarat that’s exploded in the last few years. It’s like an off-Sturt St revolution. Meigas greets the revolution with a little bit of Spanish rock and roll: a proper bodega bar with its relaxed style, live music, and flamenco dancing. You can drop in late if you want to, and just do small plates and drinks. The latter includes a long list of Spanish beers, wines, and spirits, and when you imagine you’re in Spain, you must drink as you imagine the Spanish do.
Pedigree isn’t everything, but it sure makes for an interesting conversation. The short version for the chef/owner at Anaya lists Hellenic Republic, New Market Hotel Melbourne and Teller Collective: three bullet-points in an impressive CV that alone are enough to pique your interest.
Not that pedigree really means anything once the food comes out – it speaks for itself. All the produce, apart from the seafood (obviously) is local. Lamb from Three Rivers, chorizo from Kruger’s Meats (who appropriately showed up to deliver during OHO’s visit), and Bunbartha Beef. These guys and their suppliers are excited by paddock-to-plate.
Lamb cutlets cooked on the coals right there in the kitchen had all the smokiness you’d want from a beautifully barbecue-grilled piece of lamb. Served with pomegranate and good squeeze of lemon, it is refined simplicity showcasing the best of the produce. Oh, it’s bloody delicious too. The menu changes every three to four weeks, with the seasonality of produce – which is as it should be.
The upstairs space is fab on a warm night, with a whole wall opening to the open air, giving the place a vaguely cantina vibe. It’s fun, and the cocktails from the upstairs bar are just as fun. The cucumber-elderflower thing was pretty, and had a gentle vodka hit that crept up on you. Like all good cocktails, you’ll want another!
Just out of Shepparton is a tree-lined highway hamlet called Mooroopna. It’s home to Bill & Beats, and to possibly the most unexpected delightful surprise, Yiche. The moment you enter Yiche, you’ll be reminded of every 1980s Chinese restaurant you ever dropped into for take-away, from the white tables to the vinyl chairs. The similarities to those old days are superficial though. The food from chef Brian comes out on one-off ceramics (which he hand-makes himself), and is presented so beautifully that all vestiges of suburban restaurants from a bygone era pass into irrelevance.
Stunning is a word too small for both the surprise and the beauty of what Brian is putting on the table. Little gel soy balls gleam like caviar atop the salmon. Mulberries are something you’ll never see on other menus because they are so expensive and so time-consuming to prepare. But when it grows in your backyard, it’s relatively easy, and the result is breathtaking in a granita.
The ‘Surprise Me’ menu is a perfect way to eat. You get 12-13 dishes put together by the chef, so you won’t go hungry. You’ll get a bit of everything, all seasonal, and all from the great produce Brian gets in every day. He says, ‘I get a good ingredient, and I just cook it.’ Doesn’t get much more beautifully simple than that.
Yiche has a couple of Chinese meanings: ‘Together’, ‘Number One’, and ‘Keep going up’, according to Brian’s mum Evelyn. Brian says, ‘I’m just continually trying to get better.’ How perfectly apt.