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.
‘Where did you get the name?’ The first and most obvious question about Bill and Beat’s has the most wonderful answer. Owner Jenna’s grandparents, William and Beatrice, were an inspiration for hospitality. The shed was always open for beers, and the kitchen was always open for food. Yay for Bill and Beat – what a great tradition to pass on!
The coffee here is a standout. OHO’s old friends at Mansfield Coffee Merchant supply the sacred beans, and they’re handled with a care and consistency that makes us smile.
Don’t be fooled by the small shopfront. Bill and Beat’s is big enough to do three- to four-hundred covers on a Sunday. There’s a big room out back with a kind of communal beer-hall vibe that’s heaps of fun, and a function room upstairs.
All the cakes are made in house; if you’re lunching, try the house-made gnocchi with its little bit of crunch from finishing in the pan with butter.
All good destination food venues have something unique. It could be the view, the remote location, or the proximity to something else amazing. All have one thing in common. Someone had the audacity to stick an unmissable culinary experience in a location that’s off the beaten track. Deirdre’s is the definition of all of that. Literally in the middle of an olive grove, up a track, somewhere in the wilds outside of Horsham at the base of one of those stunning rock escarpments. It’s also unmissable.
Everywhere we went in Horsham, people asked us if we were going to Deirdre’s, and how much time we’d allowed. Deirdre defines hospitality in the true sense of the word, not as an industry. Food comes when she’s cooked it. She brings it out to you. It’s bloody fantastic. So are the wines, the majority of which are local. You don’t come here for a quick bite to eat – and why would you. The location is enough to slow your world right down. Drink a few vinos, munch on the bread with the property’s own olive oil, and just chill.
Deirdre’s food is simple, full of flavour, and beautifully executed. She uses great produce, and just lets it do the talking. Confit duck and cauliflower puree is just that, and sublime. Vegans are well catered for with a dish of lentils and many garden veg, pickles, and herbs. This accidental chef knows how to turn up the natural flavours. (Deirdre says she kind of fell into it, because she liked to cook a bit.)
Deirdre’s, the quirky shed in the middle of an olive plantation, is well worth the detour. Just book, and allow some time to relax and go with the flow.
Nourish’d is the kind of place that we go searching for in the hippest parts of Melbourne when we’re on that health kick, but still need really tasty food. It’s terrific to find that a place so far from the health-conscious restaurants of inner Melbourne is walking the walk.
The Sensory Lab coffee here is great, and the daily selection of treats to go with it are the kind of palette pleasers you’d expect at a good Melbourne cafe. At Nourish’d though, there is a reason for everything. The menu is loaded with items that have a purpose in supporting your daily dietary health. Smoothies are a blend of goodies to refresh you, detox you, or give you energy for the day ahead.
Breakfast plates are a balance of ingredients designed to sustain you through the day. The days of the big fry-up breakfast are gone, as we search out options to sustain us as well as make a positive impact on our health. But carnivores need not despair – if you want pork at breakfast time, then the pulled-pork with egg and superfood toast will delight. It is no surprise, given their proximity to the grain- and pulse-growing centre of Australia, that lentils and quinoa feature on the menu. The gluten-free porridge with turmeric poached pear is pretty damned tasty.
Other local producers feature prominently. Nice to know that the farms you drive past on the way are the sources of your breakfast and lunch.
Yea has had a few good little providores and cafes over the years, and the Emporium is a delightful continuation of the trend. True to the name, there are all manner of goods stocking the shelves – local produce, organic foods and cosmetics, bric-a-brac, and of course, food from the MannaFest Cafe.
The menu is homely and dishes like vegetable curries and soups are welcomed on cold days. Most of the produce is grown in the substantial garden on the property. There are local wines from the likes of Philip Lobley and Sedona Estate, as well as beers from Napoleone and Hargreaves Hill.
Of course, by committing to growing most of their food, they are also committing to changing menus regularly. There’s loads of preserves, pickles, and ferments too, ensuring there’s always something delicious from the garden.
Coffee is from the always excellent roastery of Mansfield Coffee Merchant, an OHO fave from the region.
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.
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.
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.
Like most amazing simple things, once you’ve tried the real thing, you’ll never look at another imported pumpkin seed again. “Pepitas” as they’re sold in health-food shops, are mostly a cheap imported product, often made from the wrong pumpkin. Owners of the Australian Pumpkin Seed Company, Jay and Sharan, have set themselves a huge task of educating an oblivious market. We were fortunate to step on to their property with them, and see first hand what it takes to grow a simple product to a level of excellence like this.
For starters, this is not an eating pumpkin. It’s awful. It really is grown for its seeds. And there are thousands of them in perfect rows in front of us at harvest time! Then there’s the processing. Obviously, most of the pumpkin is not the seed! And without the help of an established industry, these guys have had to build or import (but mostly the former) the gear required.
The result is worth it. Honestly, the crunch and flavour of such a simple little thing is one of life’s joys – like the perfect apple or the best peach.
You can visit the farmgate store and sample their various seeds, from plain to flavours of all kinds, as well as other products like the oils. There are health benefits which are best explained by the proprietors, but the flavour is king. Jay is an ex-chef who knows a thing or two about flavour, and it shows.
Your breakfast cereal toppings will never be the same again.
We’d heard whisperings about The Independent since it opened. Carnivore friends had raved about the meat offerings. They were right, as it turned out, but what they failed to mention was the extraordinary vegan menu. We found this completely by accident after a particularly meat-heavy week. We were treated to one of the most extraordinary slow-cooked corn dishes we’ve ever tasted. It was slow cooked, but still had crunch. Chef Mauro Callegari is Argentinian, and proudly brings those flavours to his menu. The corn dish was a revelation in spices and flavours. Now, you’d never accuse us of being vegan, but that’s a menu I’d happily order from again.
Until the meat came out.
The lamb shoulder was generous to say the least. It was most of a lamb from the shoulder back, and came with some amazing carrots that had Mauro’s Argentinian flare for spice. Broccoli, chilli, walnuts, and tahini dressing made for a stunning salad. Desserts were the kind you’d travel across the state for. It’s only an hour away though, so there’s no excuse not to get a little Independent love.