Innocent Bystander is back, right across the car park from Giant Steps (where they were once housed under the same roof). It’s a familiar vibe, but like a great second marriage, it’s a bit more sophisticated. The wood-fired pizzas are there, the tapas are there, and the great wines are there. Only now the wines are on tap. Yes. Tap. It’s a revolutionary system developed to pour everything from chilled Prosecco or everyone’s favourite Moscato through to the Shiraz, which by the glass is a perfect foil for those wood-fired pizzas. By the flask, it’s fun to share.
There are loads of details to take in here while you’re spending a long lazy lunch with friends or a cheeky midweek dinner excursion. Take home your bread or pick up your coffee early.
This is one of those ‘you’d better sign up to the mailing list’ moments, because you’ll want to book early. The monthly lunches are a long-table affair, showcasing the local produce and, of course, Scott’s wine. We had the mainstay Chardonnay and Pinot. It’s an education in the influence of maritime conditions on the growing of grapes. These wines have a delicious complexity afforded them by the climate.
Honestly, if your best chocolate experience involved a mass-produced bar of something brown, you need to listen up.
Chocolate is like wine. Chocolate is like coffee. Chocolate is as seasonal as your tomatoes and apples. Speaking of apples, different places grow different tasting cacao. And this all adds up to single-origin chocolates which show all these variations in flavour. It’s exciting the first time you see it and taste it for yourself. There’s no better place than Bright Chocolate to have this experience. Here, the chocolate is made in front of you – from the cacao beans through to the packaged product. One of the few makers in Australia to commit to the whole process from bean to bar, Bright Chocolate gives you an experience every chocolate lover needs.
Something is happening in the tiny community of Pomonal. Pep, owner of Pomonal Estate, points to the neighbours in various directions and tells OHO, ‘The carpenter lives over there, the builder just there, the beekeeper over that way, and the guy who grows the salad greens, just there.” Almost on cue, the guy who grows the salad greens walks in the door with today’s box of salad greens. He talks about the horseradish-peppery flavour of the curly red lettuce.
The owners’ enthusiasm for all things local is infectious. The build is brand-new, and made by locals. The accommodation they’ve just opened on site is set right in the middle of the place they love. The Grampians are right there, changing all the time with the changes in light, and you can stay in a brand-new luxury home with picture windows to all the views.
What you’ve really come here to read about, though, is one or more of the following burning questions:
1. Can I get a good coffee? Yes.
2. Is there good food? Yes. Local, simple and fresh.
3. Is there a view? Yes. A damn good one.
4. Is the wine good? Yes it is.
5. Is the beer good? Yes it is, and it’s truly small-batch, made on site.
6. Is it far? No, not if you stay over. Otherwise, expect a 3-hour drive and a mix-tape.
If you love your food and you eat meat, you should know where it comes from. It’s a tenet preached by celebrity chefs and foodies alike. We wish all our beef and lamb came from Sage Farm. The animals live such a charmed life, and the quality of the product shows it. We started a day in the Moorabool Valley with a visit to Sage Farm, and spent some time with Chris and his family taking a tour of the property and meeting his happy livestock. It’s something you can do on a Saturday tour, too. The on-farm store stocks meat products from the farm as well as other local produce. The farm has a butchery on site, and has regular workshops. It also has accommodation in the house on site, with a view of the Moorabool Valley that has to be seen to be believed.
Having started our day at Sage, we finished at Gladioli, where Chris’s beef had come full circle and ended up on our plate in a spectacular dish. It’s the perfect way to understand the provenance of our food.
Andrew and Jenny are the kind of family hosts you expect from a little cellar door on a private property. They love what they do, though like most growers and makers, they question their own sanity. We didn’t have any further questions after sampling the wines, though. They’re all a perfect education in terroir – that fancy French word for the intangible combination of place, climate, season, and ‘vibe’ that makes wines taste the way they do. Regular music gigs held at the venue make it worth signing up to the newsletter.
These little places are why we leave the city for a long weekend.
When a chef and two winemakers conspire, it’s usually a good thing. It usually means food+wine=good. Hogget Kitchen is no different. In the winery, Bill Downie and Patrick O’Sullivan. You might recognise those Reg Mombassa labels Bill is famous for. In the kitchen, Trevor Perkins with brother Steve.
Trev is quietly spoken, passionate about food and provenance, but in a way that just gets the job done. No fanfare. Just, “Oh, I picked the tomatoes from Mum’s garden”, and “Yeah, we grew up cooking, hunting for meat, that sort of thing”, and “Yeah, I built the hot smoker from scratch, to get one I liked.”
The food is a simple, beautiful, produce-driven style, not overly presented, and it’s all from around here. We had Trev’s mum’s heirloom tomato salad, (best tomatoes ever), flathead and Dobsons potatoes (perfect), Bresaola and radishes (sublime, cured in-house), and a simple little dish Trev called “Steak and chips.” OK, it was a steak and potato chips, but what you need to know is that the beef is dry-aged in the cabinet at the front of the open kitchen. It’s cooked carefully in the pan to get that golden crust on the outside and be gloriously soft and pink on the inside. It’s finished with Trev’s mum’s own Worcestershire sauce, and served with the crispiest golden potato chips ever. O. M. G.
We’d heard whisperings about The Independent since it opened. Carnivore friends had raved about the meat offerings. They were right, as it turned out, but what they failed to mention was the extraordinary vegan menu. We found this completely by accident after a particularly meat-heavy week. We were treated to one of the most extraordinary slow-cooked corn dishes we’ve ever tasted. It was slow cooked, but still had crunch. Chef Mauro Callegari is Argentinian, and proudly brings those flavours to his menu. The corn dish was a revelation in spices and flavours. Now, you’d never accuse us of being vegan, but that’s a menu I’d happily order from again.
Until the meat came out.
The lamb shoulder was generous to say the least. It was most of a lamb from the shoulder back, and came with some amazing carrots that had Mauro’s Argentinian flare for spice. Broccoli, chilli, walnuts, and tahini dressing made for a stunning salad. Desserts were the kind you’d travel across the state for. It’s only an hour away though, so there’s no excuse not to get a little Independent love.
Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth is one of those classic ‘Back Shed to Big-ish Business’ stories. Ben started brewing in his dad’s shed over a decade ago. Actually, there’s a lot of shed about the vibe at this Beechworth venue, and we love it. All of this is by-the-by, really, because the beer is awesome, and the food is casual and fun. It’s a great place to hang with a few friends making short work of a range of beers and pizzas. Tomato, taleggio, thyme, mushrooms and capers. These had a happy home on my pizza, washed down with a Bling India Pale. Delicious.
Tasting boards are a great way to try a few beers before committing to a whole pint or, if you’re like us, choosing which six-packs to take home. And if you like to get your beer-geek on, then every Saturday at 11am there’s a chance to tour the inner sanctum of the brewery with a tasting.
The Bellarine Peninsula is home to some amazing little finds, most of them set away from the main roads and found by local knowledge or that article you read once somewhere. Basil’s Farm is a vineyard and restaurant at the end of a spectacular driveway, through the vines, and almost on the beach overlooking the water to Queenscliff. Getting out of the car and discovering where you are is just the start of a beautifully surprising adventure.
With an almost Royal Mail–like attention to the provenance of their produce, they are crafting tasty dishes with veg from their extensive garden (a small section of which you are free to roam). The wines made on the estate are equally as fine and detailed. Two styles of chardonnay are particularly interesting, as is the maritime influence seen in the pinot noir.