The Royal Mail Hotel

So much has been written already about the extraordinary food at The Royal Mail. We know that it’s a save-your-pennies experience at the famous Two Hat restaurant – and that it’s worth it. But less well known are the other stunning gems also part of the Royal Mail Experience. The wine cellar attached to the business is, as you’d imagine, goddamn amazing. Here’s the awesome bit though – you can get into it for a rare tasting and tour. It’s literally a warehouse full of wine racks. And you can pay $25 for the most extraordinary flight of wines. This is the way to learn about the great French wines, and our local equivalents.

Also part of the Royal Mail’s DNA is the attention to produce. Most of it is sourced from the business’s properties – the beef and lamb from the farm, the olives from the grove, the fruit from the orchards, and the veg from the garden. You can take a complimentary tour of the garden as a guest of the hotel. Well worth it. We were inspired to make things grow in our own dirt back home.

Of course, it all comes together in the dining room, with the famous degustations. But if you’re just passing through from Port Fairy or Hamilton, try the Parker St Project. This is the Mail’s laid-back experience, but none of the attention to detail is lost. As the name implies, this is a work in constant progress, where menu items are tried and tested, and we get to sample in a casual, country pub-like setting. Worth the detour.

Merricks General Wine Store

It’s been a while since the last visit to Merricks General Wine Store. I had fond memories of a great long lunches with a bunch of day-tripping friends. We’d seen a few wineries, walked on a wintery beach at Shoreham, and sat around a long table swapping dishes, tasting everything and sharing some great wines. The ownership has changed since then, but my memories are accurate. This place is just a perfect pause in the middle of a long weekend or just a long day out.

French chef Patrice Repellin’s food is seasonal, from local produce. We’d been to a farm-gate store where they were growing mushrooms earlier in our day out, and it was fantastic to then eat the king brown mushrooms in a dish a few hours later.

Wines are mostly local, showcasing in particular the wines of the Baillieu vineyards and other “friends of the wine store.”

Don’t miss the art gallery next door. It has a regularly changing exhibition. Also, if you’re on an early run and just want a coffee, they have a hole-in-the-wall style cafe too.

Trofeo Estate

The word “Amphora” conjures up images of the Romans to me. It turns out that’s exactly what Trofeo Estate have here – ancient-looking clay jars used to ferment wines without imparting flavours from wood (such as with oak barrels) whilst still letting in that crucial slow leak of oxygen which ages and softens the wine (unlike stainless steel.)

Winemaker Richard Darby says that the huge clay pots allow the truest of fruit flavours to shine. We did a head-to-head of the same Syrah as fermented in clay vs. fermented in oak. We could see his point. Beautifully focussed and delicate fruit flavours.

The estate is also a restaurant, set in a former passionfruit cannery from the 1930’s. The food is local where possible, always seasonal, and matched nicely to the wines as you’d expect.

Join the mailing list and follow this place on social media. The music nights are epic, and there are plans to host movie nights and more.

Georgie Bass

Georgie Bass is like TV show Frasier – a spin-off series of your favourite show that actually works. All the charm and good humour of the older more established Flinders Hotel, but with some down-to-earth sophistication — provided in the case of the TV Show by English-girl-turned-love-interest Daphne. In the case of Georgie Bass, the interest comes from a produce-driven health conscious menu, a cooking school, and some epic secret dinners.

The produce is grown by the gardeners just down the road on the owner’s property, where perfect rows of beautiful brassicas were pushing up, along with radishes and other winter goodies. Come spring I can only imagine the spectacular display.

Dining is casual and fun. On sunny days, bean bags and outdoor tables among the kitchen herb garden are fun. The inside space is warm and has shelves of stuff made locally and by the team at the restaurant.

The cooking school is fortnightly at the moment, but the mailing list will let you know what’s coming up. Similarly for the epic secret dinners. We’ve not been to one yet – they sell out quickly, so keeping an eye on the social media is key to get in. Chef Michael Cole runs these at the drop of a hat when he finds something exciting in the ocean or his garden.

 

Swell

Jan Juc is off the highway, just a stones throw from Torquay. It’s a tiny hamlet, a reprieve from the summer madness that Torquay generates. Swell is in its second incarnation now, and after 12 years it’s almost fair to call it an institution.

The front of the cafe has local makers and producers on display and for sale, and there’s summer seating down the side on a neat little deck. The stool-high communal table is perfect for the one-person escapees who’ve just ducked out for some sanity on a busy day.

Dave the chef showed us the generosity of the dishes here – large servings of quality produce turned into simple and delicious dishes. He turns a few cheffy tricks with some of his presentation, but it’s really all about those simple flavours.

Oh – best juices and smoothies on the Great Ocean Road, for sure. Not just milk and fruit, these are the real deal.

Benton Rise Farm

One of the reasons you take a trip into regional areas is that warm fuzzy feeling you get from seeing where your food comes from. It’s a particularly warm and fuzzy feeling to buy it from the farm and cook it for yourself. Benton Rise Farm has a service from their website where you can order their box of veg or make up your own for your weekend away, pick it up from the farm on your way down, and have all you need to cook delicious food in wherever your self-contained accommodation is.

If I can push the “fuzzy” link a little further, the mushrooms grown at Benton Rise are a highlight. We were lucky enough to try them in a dish on the menu at Merricks General Wine Store. Flavour country right there.

The Saturday morning farmers markets at the property are awesome, and staged from a “Red Rattler” train carriage.

Captain Moonlite

Walking from the car park to the top floor of the Anglesea Surf Club, we had no idea what to expect. We’d heard rumours about what chef Matt Germanchis and his partner Gemma Gange had done up here, but nothing solid. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition – surf-club memorabilia with super-professional service from a ridiculously experienced crew. (Gemma comes from a portfolio career of high-end postings at Pei Modern, Jacques Reymond and Stokehouse.) So, even as we sat down, we still had no idea what was coming.

Matt started at the Healesville Hotel years ago, and moved on through a career littered with more Chef’s Hats (Pei Modern, MoVida, Pandora’s Box). The food reflects all that experience, but it’s somehow made the sea-change and relaxed with him. It’s seasonal produce, a daily menu changing with what’s available. Don’t worry about missing a favourite we guarantee each visit will garner a new one.

Visit again and again. Make a Captain Moonlite pilgrimage a regular thing. It’s not that far to go for food this good.

Did we mention the view?

Bom Gosto

So, you left the city early, nothing was open when you left, and the first stop has to be a great coffee. Found it. The coffee here is from Toby’s Estate, and expertly made. Let’s face it, that’s what matters at your first stop on any road trip. 

‘Bom Gosto’. It sounds awesome, and it means ‘Good Taste’. After nine years running Smith St mainstay Deelish (now Rockwell and Sons), the location has shifted to Lilydale, gateway of the Yarra Valley. Dee runs the restaurant, and her partner Geoff runs the 16-acre farm where they grow much of the produce on the menu.

We had the smashed pumpkin with feta, dukkah, greens from the farm, poached eggs and earthy spices, and also the mushrooms with kale, seeds, feta and poached egg. The accompanying breads were multigrain and sourdough respectively. The french toast is a rich, eggy bread with bacon and maple syrup. The bacon is to die for, with additional smokiness from the wood-fired oven, which the chefs tend as if it were a needy child. This is balanced with freshness from local strawberry slices, raspberries, dusky blueberries, and tart apple. There was also a fresh minty taste with a lingering depth that we couldn’t identify. “It’s chocolate mint – we have a plant out the back”, Paul, the barista, tells us.

One thing is for sure, you will not leave hungry.

Mansfield Coffee Merchant

Something that our research for One Hour Out has taught us is that it’s wrong to stereotype passion for quality food (coffee, in particular) as a ‘city thing’. Mansfield Coffee Merchant, 180kms from Melbourne, does great coffee. You get that impression from the moment you walk in and see the Roastmax roaster right up the front of the store. While it’s still operational, we are told this one is now mostly decorative. Indeed, off the strength of wholesale orders all over the northeast of Victoria (and some into Melbourne), they have largely moved the roasting operation to another facility.

Another of our benchmarks is chai. We are as fussy about it as we are about coffee. No powders, no syrups. And that’s what made us fall for the Mansfield Chai (we had almond milk). It was a wet spice mix, made properly. The chai tea was pretty mean too – just one of a good range of teas on offer.

Though we were somewhat preoccupied with the coffee and tea, the food here is good too. Simple menu, well executed.

Round Bird Can’t Fly

Holy mother of baby Jesus, I think I found the Holy Grail. High-end food that’s accessible and casual enough to be a daily, local proposition.

Laura Webb-James’s approach to food at Round Bird Can’t Fly is as uncompromising as ever since leaving Yering Station. She and her partner Evan James have literally hand-crafted a comfortable, casual every-day diner with dishes that would look (and taste) at home in any of the high-end places the pair have worked in previously.

Sourcing ingredients, meeting producers and stepping on to farms is all just the start for Laura. Her recipes are developed and honed, sometimes for months, before they make it to the menu. Don’t be shy about your veganism either – Laura has a menu for you too. Keep an eye on their social media pages; the menu changes regularly with seasonal produce.

It’s this commitment and attention to detail that sets Round Bird Can’t Fly apart, and delivers the Holy Grail to diners.  High-end food within your reach, in a comfortable local venue. As a bonus, a take-home deli for all your faves occupies a good portion of the shop front.