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.

Savvy Organic Pizza

The Dandenongs have been a bed-and-breakfast destination from Melbourne since someone realised they were there, and worthy of a stay. There have been tea rooms and little places to stay since forever. While staying at the perfect weekend bolt-hole, the great dilemma has always been ‘Where do I get something awesome to eat- in, so I can watch a DVD and drink this bottle of wine?’

Pizza is the obvious answer to that question, and Savvy Organic Pizza in Belgrave is a perfect place to get it. The bonus of house-made ice creams makes it a no-brainer. The menu is all unique, with Savvy’s own interpretations of classics like margherita delivering a fresh simple punch of good tomato, basil and garlic.

The Mexicans have a gift for mixing the deliciousness of chocolate with the heat of chilli. Savvy has accepted the gift and made an ice cream out of it. There are other amazing flavours to try, but this one is an OMG, When Harry Met Sally, leave-me-alone-with-the-ice cream moment.

Oh, there’s some other stuff nearby – some kind of steam train, a short trip to an animal thing, and a winery or two; but really, your weekend away is about staying indoors and eating bloody good pizza and ice cream.

Talbot Provedore and Eatery

Christopher and Jayne are both ex-photographers, although one is never really an ex-photographer. One merely becomes preoccupied with other things. The ‘other thing’ that fills their time is a slice of a stunning country town in the form of Talbot Provedore and Eatery.

Christopher was once the chef at the Avoca Hotel and part of a team that won numerous industry accolades. His commitment to excellent food from sustainable, local produce continues at his own venture here in Talbot.

The town plays host to one of the biggest farmers markets in country Victoria every 3rd Sunday of the month, when thousands of people descend on the streets looking for produce straight from the people who grow it. The Provedore and Eatery is designed to be a showcase of the best of the farmers market and other producers from the region. It’s situated right next to a community garden, where the chefs regularly gather whatever is growing and include it in the menu. Fresh produce from the farmers around the district comes in daily, and the menu reflects this.  The wine and beer list contains mostly local heroes, all worthy of the best lists, and all doing something interesting.

Christopher and Jayne are not loud or brash entrepreneur types. They are enterprising, no doubt. But they exude a quiet and passionate commitment to their craft. Saturday nights are a real stretching of the legs for the chefs. It’s a simple degustation of three carefully crafted and exquisitely prepared dishes for pretty short money. Talbot is lucky to have the Provedore and Eatery. Get out there for a weekend, do the Saturday night and the market next day. Good times.

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.

Bill and Beat’s

‘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.

Deirdre’s

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 Eatery

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 Emporium and MannaFest Cafe

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

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.