Catfish Thai

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.

Sweet Fern

Here’s something a bit different. Think wine tasting, but you’re not putting it in your mouth. Although, there’s wine. And platters. But you’re not drinking the thing you’re tasting. Follow?

Sweet Fern is a perfumery, and the experience is captivating and unique. Let’s start with the experience of owner Kate Robinson walking you through the ‘Fragrance Wheel’. It’s a mind-blowingingly  simple way to understand the scents we love. It’s deeply personal and loaded with all our experiences of life and memories. As she explains, ‘Smell is the sense of memory.’ The idea that from this, we can narrow down from hundreds of the highest-quality fragrances to the single one that is our own recognisably ‘you’ scent is extraordinary. It’s not just ‘perfume shopping’, it really is a very personal experience – one which can be quite moving, as you’re delving back through memories via scent.

Get a few friends together for a weekend, and book a fragrance masterclass during an afternoon. Then hit the town, maybe make some new memories somewhere, like Catfish. And in case you’re wondering, it’s not a gender-specific experience. Memories and smell are for everyone.

Merne at Lighthouse

Just to clear things up from the beginning: for the hard-core foodies who remember Loam and its two hats at this venue, Merne at Lighthouse is totally different. Don’t expect fussy degustations or cerebral menus. Merne is an altogether more casual affair. Chef Josh Smith uses that word, ‘casual’, too – but it’s clear from the food that he didn’t earn his chops at Macca’s. His CV includes The Royal Mail, Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, and Tulip Bar and Restaurant.

Merne at Lighthouse is the kind of project OHO loves. Former chef and owner of Gladioli Matt Dempsey, Graham Smith of Tulip, chef Josh Smith, and manager Caleb Fleet are like some sort of Marvel Comics superhero dream team. That they have decided on a casual approach to bloody amazing food is refreshing. It’s also a smash hit as far as nailing the concept.

The best way to eat at Merne is the chef’s grazing menu. Expect a table full of beautiful food to share. Sure, the experience is casual, but the word belies the care, thought and skill that goes into preparing food this lovely.

Ten Minutes by Tractor

Earning ‘hats’ in the restaurant trade is a vexed thing. It can become an obsession for those who just can’t quite make the grade. But the reality is, for those who have ‘it’, ‘the knack’, ‘the x-factor’ – it just happens. Ten Minutes by Tractor has all of that, and sitting down to one of the memorable lunches of a lifetime, it felt like things happened easily. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable, the staff cheerful and courteous.

Obviously, this appearance belies the preparation and hard work that actually goes on to make it look easy. Chef Stuart Bell has been perfecting the food here for nine years, and before that with the likes of Phillipe Mouchel, Langtons and Liberté, and Alain Fabrègues at Loose Box, as well as Jacques Reymond. His food is an exercise in yin and yang, a balancing act. It’s visually stunning, and the chef’s philosophy is apparent in the flavours.

Of course, the food is only half the picture at Ten Minutes by Tractor. Equal attention is paid to the creation of cold-climate wines of great quality. Leave a little extra time to go through the whole range. The Estate wines age beautifully, so it’s worth taking home more than one, because they’re hard to keep for too long without opening.

Port Phillip Estate

It’s an unassuming introduction to Port Phillip Estate, through a door that feels a little bit industrial and a little bit James Bond. It opens out into the most extraordinary view across the fields to the ocean, with cellar door and casual bistro to the right, and more formal restaurant to the left.

There is a kind of curious dissonance in the slightly casual chairs and the formal settings, the friendliness of the staff and the formality of the restaurant fit-out. It’s like the formality has been dialled down in a venue where the quality has been dialled way up. It’s a feeling that carries through to the food. It’s hard to describe the visceral experience of sitting in front of such beautiful food. It’s an exercise in the balance of beautiful presentation without overshadowing the beautiful produce. Desserts are a stunning display of skill, but still don’t overshadow the produce they’re made from. That produce is locally sourced wherever possible, and the menu is seasonal.

The cellar-door experience is worth leaving a little extra time for. The wines of the estate are renowned for their quality.

For those wanting a little more time to take it all in, the accommodation is spectacular and shares that view across the fields to the ocean.

Source Dining

Returning to this establishment was like coming home to the open arms of beautiful old friends, even after the passage of several years, a change of ownership, and a change of name.

The former Annie Smithers Bistrot of Piper St, Kyneton, is one of those revered country establishments. We found the wonderfully understated dining room just as we left it; the wine list has only improved, and the food from chef and new owner Tim Foster is truly worthy of its Good Food Guide hat.

We had the best hospitality experience here: greeted warmly, waited on with joy and professionalism, given stunning wine suggestions – and all before we’d had any food.

The same ‘Source’ refers to the provenance of the food. It’s definitely a seasonal produce–driven menu. Much of that produce comes from Tim’s garden, planted and grown with love at his home in Sedgewick. The small potager garden at the restaurant serves as a reminder of this, as well as being a practical place to fetch herbs during service. In summer months, long dinners in the garden would be stunning. Everything we ate – risotto, duck, ice-creams – it was all just so goddamn beautiful. Stunning to look at, and delicious in every way. Kyneton is lucky to have a local like this. Go there.

Mitchelton Wines

When you make your way up the long driveway into Mitchelton Wines, it only takes moments to be struck by the large tower that looks out across the vineyards. The driveway cuts through the coincidentally named vineyard, Airstrip, which echoes the airport control-tower aesthetic of the property’s iconic building. It’s a coincidence that makes you smile.

Students of architecture will spend the whole day smiling out here, not just because of the wines and the stunning food, but because of the great Robin Boyd’s recognisable building design. Sadly, Boyd passed away before the completion of the project, but Ted Ashton finished the build and the tower to complete Boyd’s vision.

Wines from this region of Central Victoria are typically powerful and full bodied. Expect lush fruit flavour for days, to go with your architectural smiles and your lunch of seasonal Goulburn River Valley produce from Muse Restaurant.

If a lighter option or cheeky breakfast is your preference, the Ministry of Chocolate Cafe is worth a visit in its own right. Speaking of chocolate, where’s the emoji for drooling? Some of the finest Belgian couverture chocolate is crafted into all kinds of things you’ll want to take home, but will probably just eat on the way.

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.

Hogget Kitchen

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.

The Teller Collective

Next door to the Food Store (held by the same owners) is the more formal dining experience of the Teller Collective. It lives in a slick fit-out of polished timber and polished concrete. It’s still laid-back and comfortable, but the menu is refined and the food style carefully considered. Pretty dishes like the house-cured salmon with horseradish and Ras el hanout are delicate and stunning. Gin-cured snapper with blood plums melts in the mouth and shows off local stone fruit.

Speaking of local, “These figs came off my tree at home” – it doesn’t get much more local than that; the figs and whitlof are the heroes of a delicate salad also featuring Jamon.

The smashed pavlova and the rice pudding look spectacular: such that they surprise and delight, belying their simple names. The wine list is short but really well curated – a mix of very local and imported gems.