Platypi Chocolate

Forrest,  in the Otway Ranges behind the Apollo Bay/Lorne stretch of coastline, is nestled amongst tall timbers in a cool temperate rainforest.  Note the spelling – it’s named after a state MP, Mr Charles Forrest – the name is not a statement of the blatantly obvious. It’s a gorgeous little place, close to Birregurra (Brae) and a stone’s throw from the coast.

The newest place to stop for coffee or decadent hot chocolate is Platypi Chocolate. It’s set amidst the treetops, with balcony views to the birds and wildlife almost close enough to touch.

Speaking of the hot chocolate, the menu calls it a ‘Bomb’ – a ball of chocolate containing a rich ganache that you pop into a cup and pour hot milk over. There’s a house-made marshmallow to complete the luxurious camp-fire experience. It’s a fun bit of theatre, with a good ‘Mmmmm’ to match.

The owners are passionate about the use of local produce, and the simple menu makes honest use of them. Coffee is roasted in Birregurra, just up the road. Their commitment extends to the flavourings in the chocolate selection, which is all made on-site. Instead  of manufactured essences, Platypi uses infused creams made on-site from ingredients like lemon myrtle from Mandy’s yard.

Barca Love

It’s not clear what the people of Shepparton did for their smoky cuban sandwiches before Phil Barca and Tina Love opened their little cafe/bar. How they lived without 15-hour smoked brisket rolls, cubanos, or bourbon baby back ribs is a mystery. Life must have been dreary before the powerhouse kitchen team let their buttermilk chicken loose on the unsuspecting people of Shepparton. Where did they get layers of flavours upon bold flavours in sticky southern-style comfort food?

Barca Love is part of a food-led renaissance that seems to be happening in Shep right now. There’s a bunch of fun and interesting places to hang out and eat which have all popped up in recent times. It would do them all a disservice to say, ‘Just like what you get in Melbourne’, because places like Barca Love have got their own Shepparton flavour about them. It’s a killer combination of easy-going, unpretentious and bloody good food.

Oh, if that’s not enough to get you in the door, maybe the thought of a secret BBQ sauce will tip you over the edge. It’s an inherited recipe which is guarded like the nuclear codes.

Pickled Sisters

Rutherglen is part of a little cluster of towns right near the NSW border.  Within ten minutes’ reach you have Rutherglen, Wahgunyah and, just over the border, Corowa. So many producers of quality food are in the surrounding area that really, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to find Pickled Sisters doing such fine fare, nor that they’ve been doing it for so long.

It’s fair to call the restaurant a shed – that’s what it is. There’s nothing wrong with that in OHO’s reckoning. Sheds are where some of the best stuff gets made. In this particular shed, chef Stuart is quietly turning out some stunning-looking and beautiful-tasting food. The approach is simple – take good produce, respect it, and serve it with local wines.

Although Pickled Sisters shares the shed with Cofield Wines, the wine list is not limited to that one label. It’s a real showcase of the region’s best. In fact, it wouldn’t be unusual to spot a local winemaker like Mandy Jones dropping off another case.

If you have a tendency to get pickled yourself, you could plan ahead and book one or two of the ‘glamping’ tents situated at the very edge of the vineyard. These are tents in the literal sense, if not the traditional. Yes, there’s canvas and a fire. But when was the last time your tent was fully carpeted, had a queen-size bed, air conditioning and a fully stocked wine fridge?

It’s worth keeping in touch with the Sisters event schedule. The cooking classes would make for a fab fun weekend in a shed.

Thousand Pound Wine Bar and Store

Eliza Brown needed somewhere to drink and talk with her wine industry pals, so she built a wine bar and restaurant. Best call ever. Named for the people of all different cultures who flocked to the area for gold in the 19th century to make their first ‘thousand pound’, this bar and restaurant is simultaneously like walking into a piece of small-town history and a slice of Melbourne chic.

Wines on the wall are all ‘friends of friends’ – made by locals, loved by local winemakers, or who have some sort of connection. At the moment there’s a lot of local and imported rosé in the rack, and we at OHO have no argument with that whatsoever.

Out in the kitchen, Dan is making stylish but relaxed food. You’ll want to Instagram these dishes, but they’re definitely not just a pretty plate. Scallops with little fingerling gems and a cauliflower purée are the perfect starter.

Eliza and her husband Dennis grow their own lamb, pork and some other produce such as figs. The restaurant is the perfect outlet. It’s known and loved for its steak – there are four on the menu. Out the back, Dan has his charcoal burning grill, hibachi-style, and the meat has that seductive, charred smoky flavour.

Of course, it started with a desire for somewhere to drink with friends. So there’s a long drinks list, and super-friendly staff to bring you the wine or cocktail of your choosing. Try the cocktail of muscat and soda – it’s a twist on the wine history of Rutherglen, served with a big smile.

Brother Pablo

The tunes grab you as you walk in. You know that this little urban-feeling joint promises to take you somewhere familiar and makes you expect amazing coffee.

You can spot the fussy coffee drinkers in any cafe. They often linger a little before ordering if they’re there for the first time. They watch the barista make the orders in front of them, and a few little tell-tale habits will make them smile. Measured and weighed doses of coffee into the portafilter, a consistency of pours from one order to the next, small milk jugs used for one coffee at a time – all these things matter. So it’s lovely to see a ridiculously young and talented barista take such fussy care of each and every coffee made.

The coffee is house-roasted under the Clockwork Coffee brand, the milk is 100% Biodynamic Jersey, and made with such pride that it’s easy to see why Brother Pablo is a local fave.

Mitchell Harris Wines

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’.

Harvest Halls Gap

You know on a road-trip, you see all these other sub-50’s non-grey road-trippers and you think “Where the hell are all these other people like me getting their coffee and decent food??”

In Halls Gap it’s at Harvest. Simple delicious food from locally sourced produce. Their little providore section is filled with local stuff too.

We had breakfast here, having stayed the night in the accommodation attached to the restaurant. Friday nights go off (best to book!), and the vibe during the annual music festival (also run by the owners) is epic.

Sonny

Inverleigh is not quite a “blink and you’ll miss it” town – its wide street and small collection of shops are enough to slow you down for a look. But take this as a reason to stop – Sonny.

Shaun and Amy started Sonny a couple of years ago, and OHO always promised to go back after stumbling inside on what turned out to be his opening day. Well, the years have gone by quickly and Sonny is now firmly a part of the Moorabool Valley food scene –thanks in no small part to the owner’s dedication to keeping it fresh, local and seasonal.

Coffee is from the ever-reliable Market Lane, and made well. This should possibly be the headline for a cafe on a roadtrip route like Sonny – but in fact, the food is the best excuse to stop and take a lunch break in Inverleigh.

There’s a lot of love from local producers when it comes to the food at Sonny. Veggies are literally delivered to the kitchen by a tractor from the farm over the back, beef comes from Sage Farm down the road and wines are from the Moorabool Valley.

In keeping with the commitment to local, fresh produce, Sonny hosts a swap-meet for growers of fruits and vegetables on the weekends. If you happen upon this, don’t be shy! Just because you’ve come empty-handed doesn’t mean you have to leave that way.

Bannockburn Station

Railway Stations are generally fairly functional spaces, not usually described as ‘pretty’. Bannockburn is blessed with a beautiful stone cottage built in 1862 as a railway station, and now that trains don’t operate, it serves as a stunning venue for food and wine.

Cakes are something of a specialty at Bannockburn Station. In fact, in a way it’s the cakes that are responsible for Fiona starting the cafe in the first place. She was already turning out cakes for others from her own kitchen, and it seemed logical to give them their own cafe!

The menu is simple and generous – local produce cooked with care, nothing pretentious, no molecular gastronomy. It’s the kind of place that becomes a regular stop if you’re driving the Geelong to Ballarat route. You’d happily make time in your plans to stop for breakfast in the morning or lunch if you leave a little later.

Savvy Organic Pizza

The Dandenongs have been a bed-and-breakfast destination from Melbourne since someone realised they were there, and worthy of a stay. There have been tea rooms and little places to stay since forever. While staying at the perfect weekend bolt-hole, the great dilemma has always been ‘Where do I get something awesome to eat- in, so I can watch a DVD and drink this bottle of wine?’

Pizza is the obvious answer to that question, and Savvy Organic Pizza in Belgrave is a perfect place to get it. The bonus of house-made ice creams makes it a no-brainer. The menu is all unique, with Savvy’s own interpretations of classics like margherita delivering a fresh simple punch of good tomato, basil and garlic.

The Mexicans have a gift for mixing the deliciousness of chocolate with the heat of chilli. Savvy has accepted the gift and made an ice cream out of it. There are other amazing flavours to try, but this one is an OMG, When Harry Met Sally, leave-me-alone-with-the-ice cream moment.

Oh, there’s some other stuff nearby – some kind of steam train, a short trip to an animal thing, and a winery or two; but really, your weekend away is about staying indoors and eating bloody good pizza and ice cream.