The Criterion Hotel

It takes fortitude of a wardrobe-changing kind to take on a crumbling old building destined for demolition, and turn it into a hub for the community. That’s exactly what Ferg and Andrew have given the people of Sale in Central Gippsland – a pub to be proud of. It came as the result of a passion for heritage; ably guided by Heritage Victoria, they have turned a wreck that had barely survived since it was built in 1865 into the kind of local establishment where you’ll want to spend hours with your mates.

The hospitality side of things is looked after by Ferg Horan, a former chef at places like the Tinamba Hotel, amongst others. His team is turning Gippsland produce info the kind of pub food that brings a smile to your face. Nothing too wanky, just beautiful flavourful dishes that actually make you smile when they arrive. Yes, there’s a parma for those who are on that quest for the perfect one, but the steak is amazing too. It should be – Gippsland is beef country.

The hotel has some stunning accommodation as well, for those on the way somewhere.

All pubs should be a collection point, a place for people to meet, unwind, and put aside the cares of the day over a pint of the finest. The fact that the kitchen turns out some damn fine food is the best of bonuses.

Giant Steps

Giant Steps quickly became the stalwart of the Yarra Valley winery and restaurant scene when Phil Sexton first opened it over a decade ago. The structure has become a reassuring symbol of always-available quality wines and food situated in Healesville’s east end.

Winemaker Steve Flamsteed has an unwavering commitment to making quality wines that express the place they’re from, whether it’s one of the single-vineyard series wines or a regional blend. His commitment to excellence is exemplified in his path to winemaking. First he was a chef, then a cheesemaker, but it was wine that caught his attention. While studying oenology, he paid his way as a chef with Maggie Beer. It’s unsurprising that he emerged with a passion for local expressions of produce.

Steve’s uncompromising attention to detail yields results, from the vineyard to the wine glass, and the experience at the Healesville cellar-door restaurant is a reflection of this same approach. Staff are knowledgeable and genuinely love talking about the wines they’re selling. It helps that the tasting room is behind the glass wall, right in the barrel hall where you’re immersed in the workings and glorious smells of a winery.

After a recent refurbishment, the place is looking as fresh and contemporary as ever. It’s a pleasant place to sit and enjoy the food, and definitely to appreciate the good work of Steve and the team in the winery.

Oakridge

You might know Oakridge for its deserved reputation as a producer of some of the best wines in Australia. The best wine writers consistently score Oakridge’s sacred drop over 95 points, and for good reason. The cellar door and restaurant, set in the middle of the vineyards at Coldstream, is a beautiful architectural work of minimalist art, and is the perfect place to try all the latest as well as some selected museum releases. Winemaker David Bicknell is one of the greats, described by James Halliday as ‘an extremely gifted winemaker’, so the opportunity to sample the wines with knowledgeable staff is one you should consider seriously as a life goal.

Another life goal should be to eat the food of Oakridge’s dynamic duo, Matt Stone and Jo Barrett. Both might appear familiar to you from cameo appearances on TV shows, including MasterChef. The ethos of local and seasonal is taken seriously, with an array of just-picked produce coming straight out of the large garden behind the winery. Matt handles the savoury flavours delicately and with such finesse that you’ll be hard-pressed to resist the instagram urge before devouring. Go slowly, because you’ll want to remember every bite. The same is true of Jo’s exquisite desserts.

One of the things we all look for when we go out to dine is flavour that we won’t experience at home. Jo and Matt both pair flavours with such bold confidence, you’re guaranteed a unique taste experience that you won’t get anywhere else, much less at home. Some flavours seem so unusual, ethereal and beautiful that they’re impossible to put a finger on. Who’d have thought that the lime-like acidity in a dish might come from the unexpectedly delicious addition of green ants?

 

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.

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.

The Farmer’s Place

We don’t know how many times we’ve taken this trip and passed the shed-like structure made from shipping containers which houses the Farmer’s Place on our way to Lorne or Anglesea. We’re glad we made this pit stop though. The day was perfect for a long breakfast outside in the herb garden. We had the rice pudding and French toast. The former was light (for such a big dish) and tasty. The latter was as you’d want your French toast to come. The lavender syrup was amazing.

If you’re staying in the area, consider booking ahead into one of their many courses on food and growing. These guys preach what they practise, making the Farmer’s Place much more than a simple pit stop.

Warragul Farmers Market

It’s hard to believe that this vibrant market in Warragul has only just turned five years old. It has the feeling of a long-established tradition of growers and makers who gather once a month to present the fruits of their labour. People come from all over to get their produce, enjoy street-food or a great coffee, and meet up with the people who grow the produce and make wares locally. It’s definitely dog-friendly, and OHO dog Rosie the kelpie had as much fun making new friends as your intrepid OHO adventurers did. Available produce will vary seasonally of course, but with over 60 stallholders listed as regulars, there really is something for everyone, even Rosie, who took home some delicious liver treats.

There are so many stalls, it’s going to take a few visits to get into the swing of the market (every third Saturday of the month) and establish some long-term favourites, but here are some early highlights.

Hope Farm Sourdough The way it should be.
Lime & Co.  Delicious Mexican food, made right there.
Wild Dog  Great wines and a spectacular pair of gins.
Craig’s Hut Coffee  Literally a replica of the famous hut, and great coffee.
The Bunyip Beekeeper  Because proper honey is better in every way.
Cambodian Street BBQ  Fills the whole place with delicious smells!

Better come hungry, because you’re going to want to eat it all.

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.

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.

 

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.