Note: Gladioli is now known as Inverleigh Cellar and Kitchen.
On a road trip, there are places you come across on your way somewhere. Indeed, that’s part of why OHO exists – so you can find good stuff on the way to where you’re going. Then there are places that you take a road trip to get to. They are the destination.
Gladioli in Inverleigh is a destination. It’s food experiences like this, in this sleepy highway town, that make you want to drive around Victoria on a quest. Awarded two Chefs Hats in the 2015/16 Age Good Food Guide, Gladioli is helping turn what was already one of Victoria’s best food-production regions into one of Victoria’s best eating regions. Other passionate people are being inspired to open up nearby, and the little hamlet of Inverleigh is turning into a must-go place for food lovers.
When Damian was a kid, he wanted to buy the lolly shop. So it makes sense that as an adult he bought the pub in his home town of Tinamba. A short detour off the road from Maffra, it’s worth the trip.
A pub has been on this site since 1874. Although various renovations and incarnations over the years have seen some changes, the bones are still visible. It’s everything you want from a country town pub – something you turned off the beaten path for. In fact, the pub has become something of a destination. Counted among regulars are local cattle farmers and folks from leafy suburbs alike. The menu says “simple delicious, local produce”, and the execution says “we love what we do here”. It’s beautiful, and still comfortable. With menus that change with produce availability, expect to have something different every time.
The pub has fast become the hub for all things food and wine in the area. The Tinamba Food and Wine Festival is worth looking out for at the end of April. Speaking of the festival (and indicative of the pub’s commitment to local), as a special, the garden has been producing spectacular cauliflowers that will feature in a dish just for that day. The day we were there the fig tree was laden, so figs were being used throughout the menu. The garden is small, but growing. It has the promise of a delicious kitchen garden to cap off an already great country pub.
Amongst the hundreds of winemaking families in Australia, there are the ‘First Families’ – those pioneers who shaped the way Australia makes and drinks the nectar of the gods. All have generations of grape growing, squishing, fermenting, bottling and drinking to their names. Think McWilliams, Tyrrells, Tahbilk and De Bortoli.
Leanne De Bortoli brought the family name down to Victoria from Griffith in the late ’80s; she and her partner and the business’s chief winemaker Steve Webber have been living the ‘good wine, good food, good friends’ mantra. Three unique vineyards supply distinct fruit which expresses its sense of place. Steve has a passion for making wines that taste like where they’re from. For the lesson in terroir alone, you should book a private tasting experience.
The restaurant on site, ‘Locale’, sings from the same mantra song-sheet. Local produce (some of it grown just out the window next to the vineyard) combines with a slightly formal but definitely casual atmosphere. It’s like going to your fancy Nonna’s house for a big family meal with loads of great Italian food, more wine than you probably should have had, and laughs aplenty. Except Nonna is a chef. And has staff. And a cellar door down stairs. Oh, and a cheese shop. Dear Lord, do not forget the formaggio. There’s a great selection of extraordinary cheeses, matured right there, available as platters, tasting plates to go with the wine tastings at the bar, or for taking home.
There’s something lovely about plated single dishes from an à la carte menu, and professional, attentive service. In contrast to the ‘all dishes on the table, share the love’ approach, there’s an almost quiet, contemplative joy in studying the menu, ordering for yourself, and then talking with your company about all the elements in your meal as it comes out.
The Rathbone family have been custodians of this vineyard and property since the mid ’90s, though there has been wine made here before then. Very good wine, in fact. The Ryrie brothers, then the De Castella family, made some impressive red wines here. Sadly, with the destruction of the wine industry from a little bug called phylloxera, the property moved to other agricultural practices. The vision of a few pioneers in the 1970s and ’80s saw the first returns to grape growing and winemaking.
Of course, at the cellar door you can sample the excellent wines made on site by chief winemaker Willy Lunn. The cellar door is one of the older buildings on site, formerly the winery from 1859. Now it does triple-duty as cellar door, gallery and produce store. The produce is a representation of the monthly farmers market held in the barn. It’s all local, all lovely. The gallery showcases artworks from emerging artists and also hosts the annual Yering Sculpture Prize. Money from the gallery’s sale commissions go to the Children’s Leukaemia charity, Larch – a long-standing Rathbone family commitment.
All that makes for interesting conversation over a meal at tables set in a mighty glass, stone and steel structure overlooking the rolling green pastures, vineyards, hills, and skies until tomorrow. When the food arrives at the table, you’ll be tempted to whip out the phone and Instagram it, but resist the urge. Just take in the view, the setting, and the beauty, and re-post someone else’s picture.
When you’re staying in a seaside village, one of the great joys is sitting with a view of the ocean, eating fresh seafood with a glass of whatever takes your fancy. La Bimba’s upstairs view of the water beyond the foreshore is superb, and it really does make sense that this beautiful food came from just over there.
Chef Steve Earl is Western Victoria born and bred. His passion for local producers doing small interesting things is writ large on his face when he talks about the friends and suppliers of La Bimba. The couple who started a duck and chicken farm, the guy who grows native limes, the guy who rings him in the middle of the afternoon and says ‘Hey, I caught some fish you might be interested in’. As we walk down the pier after collecting fish that are considered ‘by-catch’ of another industry, he expresses his disbelief that everyone isn’t doing this. ‘I mean, the sea is right there, the people who work it are right here – it’s mad that there are so few doing what I do!’
Steve’s food is just beautiful. The best way to enjoy it is with a bunch of friends, and a table full of dishes to share. A whole fish with Sichuan pepper, coriander seed and ginger with a touch of sourness from raspberry vinegar, is gorgeous. The ceviche made from that by-catch collected off the pier just a few hours earlier is the pinnacle of restraint and beauty. Paella is made the right way, with the freshest fish, calamari, and the perfect crunchy rice on the bottom. Every element is carefully considered, including the small curated wine list.
La Bimba is definitely the food highlight of Apollo Bay. Don’t miss.
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 Thai. And in case you’re wondering, it’s not a gender-specific experience. Memories and smell are for everyone.
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.
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.