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.
The Mitchell and Harris families grew up in the Ballarat region. You could argue that they were early instigators of the food revolution off the main drag (Sturt St) in town. The last few years have seen the likes of Catfish, Meigas and the Mitchell Harris cellar door/bar open up and make Ballarat a foodie destination.
The Mitchell Harris style is of relaxed industrial and historic chic, and is at once familiar and fun. It’s a place you can spend a whole Friday night getting lost in a detailed exploration of your friend’s holiday recommendations over several bottles of whatever it takes to make that sound interesting. It’s a place for meeting up with your best friend to laugh about that time you couldn’t remember that thing you did together, and order the Sabre sparkling, complete with the actual sabring of the bottle. All the Mitchell Harris wines are of course made in the company’s own winery. They’re good. Really good. There are some fabulously sessional wines in there, perfect for the formerly referred-to Friday evening.
If you’re not content with just drinking the wine someone else made for you, you could enrol in the Curious Winemaker workshop. Over the course of several visits through the season, make your own wine: from grapevine to bottle. Don’t worry, you’re not left to your own devices. You’ll be under the expert guidance of winemaker John Harris, and with him make all the critical decisions along the way to produce a decent drop you can call your own.
Mitchell and Harris is also a place to eat. A bloody good one. The food is comfortable and brings on all the requisite ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhhs’.
Spain calls like the voice of a food-obsessed friend. ‘Hey, we should do a tapas bar crawl!’ The friend makes a valid argument. When in Ballarat, the tapas begins at Meigas.
The idea of tapas is that you can put together an entire meal by eating a collection of small tasty things. The menu at Meigas fits that bill perfectly. The hung cured meats in a specialist fridge over the top of the bar, the Spanish beers, the details on the walls – it all adds to the Spanish vibe. It’s part of the niche food scene in Ballarat that’s exploded in the last few years. It’s like an off-Sturt St revolution. Meigas greets the revolution with a little bit of Spanish rock and roll: a proper bodega bar with its relaxed style, live music, and flamenco dancing. You can drop in late if you want to, and just do small plates and drinks. The latter includes a long list of Spanish beers, wines, and spirits, and when you imagine you’re in Spain, you must drink as you imagine the Spanish do.
Pedigree isn’t everything, but it sure makes for an interesting conversation. The short version for the chef/owner at Anaya lists Hellenic Republic, Syracuse and Teller Collective: three bullet-points in an impressive CV that alone are enough to pique your interest.
Not that pedigree really means anything once the food comes out – it speaks for itself. All the produce, apart from the seafood (obviously) is local. Lamb from Three Rivers, chorizo from Kruger’s Meats (who appropriately showed up to deliver during OHO’s visit), and Bunbartha Beef. These guys and their suppliers are excited by paddock-to-plate.
Lamb cutlets cooked on the coals right there in the kitchen had all the smokiness you’d want from a beautifully barbecue-grilled piece of lamb. Served with pomegranate and good squeeze of lemon, it is refined simplicity showcasing the best of the produce. Oh, it’s bloody delicious too. The menu changes every three to four weeks, with the seasonality of produce – which is as it should be.
The upstairs space is fab on a warm night, with a whole wall opening to the open air, giving the place a vaguely cantina vibe. It’s fun, and the cocktails from the upstairs bar are just as fun. The cucumber-elderflower thing was pretty, and had a gentle vodka hit that crept up on you. Like all good cocktails, you’ll want another!
Just out of Shepparton is a tree-lined highway hamlet called Maroopna. It’s home to Bill & Beats, and to possibly the most unexpected delightful surprise, Yiche. The moment you enter Yiche, you’ll be reminded of every 1980s Chinese restaurant you ever dropped into for take-away, from the white tables to the vinyl chairs. The similarities to those old days are superficial though. The food from chef Brian comes out on one-off ceramics (which he hand-makes himself), and is presented so beautifully that all vestiges of suburban restaurants from a bygone era pass into irrelevance.
Stunning is a word too small for both the surprise and the beauty of what Brian is putting on the table. Little gel soy balls gleam like caviar atop the salmon. Mulberries are something you’ll never see on other menus because they are so expensive and so time-consuming to prepare. But when it grows in your backyard, it’s relatively easy, and the result is breathtaking in a granita.
The ‘Surprise Me’ menu is a perfect way to eat. You get 12-13 dishes put together by the chef, so you won’t go hungry. You’ll get a bit of everything, all seasonal, and all from the great produce Brian gets in every day. He says, ‘I get a good ingredient, and I just cook it.’ Doesn’t get much more beautifully simple than that.
Yiche has a couple of Chinese meanings: ‘Together’, ‘Number One’, and ‘Keep going up’, according to Brian’s mum Evelyn. Brian says, ‘I’m just continually trying to get better.’ How perfectly apt.
Eliza Brown needed somewhere to drink and talk with her wine industry pals, so she built a wine bar and restaurant. Best call ever. Named for the people of all different cultures who flocked to the area for gold in the 19th century to make their first ‘thousand pound’, this bar and restaurant is simultaneously like walking into a piece of small-town history and a slice of Melbourne chic.
Wines on the wall are all ‘friends of friends’ – made by locals, loved by local winemakers, or who have some sort of connection. At the moment there’s a lot of local and imported rosé in the rack, and we at OHO have no argument with that whatsoever.
Out in the kitchen, Dan is making stylish but relaxed food. You’ll want to Instagram these dishes, but they’re definitely not just a pretty plate. Scallops with little fingerling gems and a cauliflower purée are the perfect starter.
Eliza and her husband Dennis grow their own lamb, pork and some other produce such as figs. The restaurant is the perfect outlet. It’s known and loved for its steak – there are four on the menu. Out the back, Dan has his charcoal burning grill, hibachi-style, and the meat has that seductive, charred smoky flavour.
Of course, it started with a desire for somewhere to drink with friends. So there’s a long drinks list, and super-friendly staff to bring you the wine or cocktail of your choosing. Try the cocktail of muscat and soda – it’s a twist on the wine history of Rutherglen, served with a big smile.
Rutherglen is part of a little cluster of towns right near the NSW border. Within ten minutes’ reach you have Rutherglen, Wahgunyah and, just over the border, Corowa. So many producers of quality food are in the surrounding area that really, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to find Pickled Sisters doing such fine fare, nor that they’ve been doing it for so long.
It’s fair to call the restaurant a shed – that’s what it is. There’s nothing wrong with that in OHO’s reckoning. Sheds are where some of the best stuff gets made. In this particular shed, chef Stuart is quietly turning out some stunning-looking and beautiful-tasting food. The approach is simple – take good produce, respect it, and serve it with local wines.
Although Pickled Sisters shares the shed with Cofield Wines, the wine list is not limited to that one label. It’s a real showcase of the region’s best. In fact, it wouldn’t be unusual to spot a local winemaker like Mandy Jones dropping off another case.
If you have a tendency to get pickled yourself, you could plan ahead and book one or two of the ‘glamping’ tents situated at the very edge of the vineyard. These are tents in the literal sense, if not the traditional. Yes, there’s canvas and a fire. But when was the last time your tent was fully carpeted, had a queen-size bed, air conditioning and a fully stocked wine fridge?
It’s worth keeping in touch with the Sisters event schedule. The cooking classes would make for a fab fun weekend in a shed.
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.
You know those little places on a road trip that linger like a question mark in the map of where you’ve been? The tiny little one-horse towns that flash past as you wrangle with Google to make sure you’re on the right track? Summerfield wines is the argument for stopping to check out these tiny towns.
Perched on the edge of Moonambel is a winery with a little cellar door and a large lawn. Summerfield is the labour of love of a farming family. Wines are named for the children, with artwork on labels that depict the child’s personality. They are powerful wines with beguiling cold-climate characters. Bold and interesting would be another way to describe them. It’s also an apt description of owner Mark Summerfield. He’s passionate about the place, the grapes he farms and the wines he makes.
Remember the lawn mentioned in the beginning? That’s where you’ll lose a little of your road-trip time with a selection of the goodies available in the tiny delicatessen at Summerfield to accompany a bottle or two of their wines. Mark is also passionate about the rare-breed pigs he farms, and the resulting incredible pork products fill the little deli alongside garlic grown by his children.
Slow down, people, and don’t blink as you pass though lest you miss opportunities like Summerfield. Pin your eyes open and stop!
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.