The Independent

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.

Benton Rise Farm

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.

Black Work

A shiny new restaurant from the OHO perennial darlings at Round Bird Can’t Fly is just too exciting to pass on. It’s a little more suburban than the Lilydale restaurant, but Croydon is right on the path out of town if you’re heading out to the Yarra Valley and need a little caffeine comfort on the way. It’s at the gateway to the Valley and the foot of the Dandenong Ranges. We’re not just clutching at ways just to fit this cool outer-suburban joint into the OHO family, we do actually think this is the perfect jump-off planning point for a day in the valley. Get your friends to meet you here, plan your trip over breakfast, then carpool onwards. There’s heaps of parking over the road, and it’s just off the freeway.

Coffee is from Proud Mary, and the menu is a showcase of all the best stuff Evan and Laura could get their hands on. Worth the detour.

De Bortoli Yarra Valley

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.

Hello Coffee

Well, Hello indeed. To the rescue from a caffeine-deprived morning comes the gallant Hello Coffee in Apollo Bay. Eschewing the mantra that ‘location is everything’, this place is pretty much nowhere. And it’s perfect. Nestled in the industrial estate out the back of town, it’s quirky and fun.

Let’s deal with the food first before moving on to the reason we all function in the morning, the coffee. The menu is simple and local. The food is tasty and prepared with love: the perfect accompaniment to the star attraction. (Thinking of Holly’s famous yo-yos here – divine.) Banana bread with a little caramelised banana is delicious, or if you’re feeling a bit more like lunch, the salads are healthy and fresh.

Let’s face it, though – you’re thinking of going here for the coffee. That’s a wise choice, because the house-roasted beans are prepared with love and attention. It’s been roasted, rested, and poured with an almost fanatical devotion to the art of coffee. That’s pretty much all you need to know.  If (when) you love this coffee so much that you want to take it home with you, there are also take-home bags of beans. You can prepare your own brew of caffeine love-potion in your own kitchen.