Momo

On many trips to the Gippsland Lakes, Traralgon was a way-point for fuel and a quick bite. Momo and the few others of its ilk popping up are going to make you want to stay a while longer, or even plan a town excursion if you’re staying at this end of the lakes.

The owner and manager of Momo took us straight up to the rooftop outdoor lounge. In the evening this area is fun and lively with friends catching up over a drink. Back downstairs, the food is good, simple bistro-style fare. We marvelled at the extraordinary milkshake creations from Xavier. If you value stable blood-sugar levels, take a friend to help you get through one of these. We love the commitment these guys make to local social issues too, with their amazing employment and training program. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t change any flavours, but may just make things taste better.

Wye River General Store

Wye River is a tiny hamlet between Apollo Bay and Lorne. Its main feature is a gob-smackingly gorgeous bit of coast where the river meets the surf. Running a close second is the General Store.

A late-ish breakfast at the General Store is a relaxed affair, even with the hubbub of a busy cafe that has the honour of being the only early option on this part of the coast. Sunlight floods the cafe, and on a clear day the view of surfers riding the break and families taking some time together across your avo toast and killer coffee is enough to make your heart a little gladder. If the French toast lulls you into unconsciousness, just order another coffee.

The tiny community of Wye River was hit pretty hard after the devastating Christmas Day fires of 2016. But it’s bouncing back better than ever. The Store and the pub just across the road are something of a focal point for a resilient community getting its stuff back together. There’s a really positive and friendly vibe from the store manager Briony Payten as she tells us how busy it has been, and just how supportive locals, weekenders, and tourists have been too. By the way, if you recognise that surname, yes the wine list does carry the great wines of her brother Ben Payten of Payten and Jones, amongst a strong list of locals.

For warmer days, there’s heaps of outdoor seating, and if children pepper your party, there’s the most epic playground right next door.

Though your focus might initially be on a sourdough toastie and great coffee, once you remember that you have no bread in your B&B and that you forgot your toothbrush, you’ll be glad of the other facet to the business. It’s a true general store, with all the essentials for the weekend visitor. You could easily self-cater from the selection of produce at hand, and all the ingredients for surviving a coastal retreat are available.

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.

Platypi Chocolate

Forrest,  in the Otway Ranges behind the Apollo Bay/Lorne stretch of coastline, is nestled amongst tall timbers in a cool temperate rainforest.  Note the spelling – it’s named after a state MP, Mr Charles Forrest – the name is not a statement of the blatantly obvious. It’s a gorgeous little place, close to Birregurra (Brae) and a stone’s throw from the coast.

The newest place to stop for coffee or decadent hot chocolate is Platypi Chocolate. It’s set amidst the treetops, with balcony views to the birds and wildlife almost close enough to touch.

Speaking of the hot chocolate, the menu calls it a ‘Bomb’ – a ball of chocolate containing a rich ganache that you pop into a cup and pour hot milk over. There’s a house-made marshmallow to complete the luxurious camp-fire experience. It’s a fun bit of theatre, with a good ‘Mmmmm’ to match.

The owners are passionate about the use of local produce, and the simple menu makes honest use of them. Coffee is roasted in Birregurra, just up the road. Their commitment extends to the flavourings in the chocolate selection, which is all made on-site. Instead  of manufactured essences, Platypi uses infused creams made on-site from ingredients like lemon myrtle from Mandy’s yard.

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.

Mitchell Harris Wines

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’.

Meigas

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.

Anaya

Pedigree isn’t everything, but it sure makes for an interesting conversation. The short version for the chef/owner at Anaya lists Hellenic Republic, New Market Hotel Melbourne 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!

Yiche

Just out of Shepparton is a tree-lined highway hamlet called Mooroopna. 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.

Thousand Pound Wine Bar and Store

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.