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.
You might know Yabby Lake for its wines. The wines from winemaker Tom Carson are exquisite, and the subject of many a wine review containing rapturous hyperbole. The 2014 pinot noir quite famously won the Jimmy Watson Trophy – Australia’s most prestigious wine gong. It was the first pinot noir to do so.
The cellar door is a welcome breath of casual air, despite the lofty reputation of the wines. It’s a nice place to stand and taste a few of the award-winning wines while staring at either the sculpture collection, the view across the vineyards, or that Jimmy Watson Trophy in the cabinet. Take a little time to try the single block wines if you have the opportunity – they are a stunning lesson in terroir*.
The tasting is a lovely prelude to a long lunch. The menu is casual but sophisticated, the plates generous but refined.
There are few better ways to spend an afternoon than sitting in front of a view drinking some of Australia’s best wines, eating good food, and pondering the artworks. The Kirby family are well known patrons of the arts in Australia, and the collection at Yabby Lake is significant.
The attention to detail extends right to the end (or the beginning, depending on your preference) with expertly made Market Lane coffee.
* a French term which roughly translates as ‘the influence of all things local to a place upon the end product’.
Here at OHO, we don’t like to play favourites or single out any particular experience. Foxey’s Hangout at Red Hill is our favourite, and a singularly fabulous experience. Hey – rules are made to be broken, right?
Owner Tony says that he ‘didn’t come here to run a restaurant’, and it follows that the combination of cellar door and food service is fun and unique. It’s compact and casual, and the menu is an exercise in minimalist attention to detail. It’s a bit like great minimalist architecture: if you’re going to put up super-simple dishes, they have to be precise and perfect. Tick. The quail, for instance, is simple pan-fried legs, made for picking up and sucking the meat off the bones. They are cooked to perfection, unsullied by technique, and addictively delicious.
Tony is rigid and focussed in his approach to Foxey’s Hangout. You can’t book a group, he doesn’t do events. It’s for casual dropping in and hanging out, and it’s all the better for this simplicity.
Foxey’s Hangout wines continue this focussed approach. Nothing is rushed. You can learn this at one of their sparkling wine–making workshops. The DIY approach to things like bottling means that it can take time to get the job done, but Tony’s not worried. It’s a ‘nicer time’ than running about madly for a day with an industrial portable bottling line contractor. But let’s face it, we don’t really care about the bottling. We care about what’s in the bottle. Sauvignon blanc drinkers will love the pinot gris. Anyone will love the Kentucky pinot noir.
Sitting down with four glasses of wine, each matched to the perfect food companion, might be the new definition of awesome. This is the Fowles Wines ‘Gamekeeper’s Lunch’. You get the impression that there is a tweed-wearing employee out the back who’s handy with a 12-gauge shotgun and skilled in the art of delicate food preparation.
Smoked eel has one of those flavours that when you speak of it, your memory plays tricks and you feel as though you’re tasting it. The fellow out back has paired it with a riesling which is focused and acidic, with balanced fruit. Rabbit rillette is meaty and flavoursome, matched to a fresh zippy chardonnay.
Duck and pinot noir are best friends – maybe even lovers. In this pairing the confit duck is crispy and full of flavour, and the pinot is elegant, savoury and beautifully rounded.
The finale is beetroot chutney and kangaroo. It’s the OMG moment. Earthy, sticky, charred and delicious. The shiraz is jammy and generous to match.
The area around Tahbilk, just outside Nagambie in Central Victoria, is a unique little pocket of land almost surrounded by the Goulburn River and eight kilometres of permanent backwaters and creeks. The Purbrick family first planted vines here in 1860, and some of those vines are still producing fruit for their ‘1860’ shiraz today. The location adjacent to so much water has enough impact on the climate that the grape-growing creates flavours unique to the region. The French would name this little area for its own ‘appellation’, as a result.
Tahbilk’s historic winery and cellar door is an experience in itself. The ancient oak fermenters in the cellar door are not just for show. This is a working winery, using equipment that in some cases is over a hundred years old.
The restaurant on site is modern by comparison, and the food equally so. It’s a menu of sure-fire winners and crowd pleasers. Who can say no to the perfect pork belly or luscious little lumps of slow-cooked beef, pulled, pressed, crumbed and deep-fried. Ooh la la. A 2014 shiraz from the Estate was a sublime pairing with the beef.
Definitely take the short detour off the highway near Nagambie, and drop in for lunch and a lesson in the history of winemaking. Don’t forget to spend some time walking around the pristine wetlands at Tahbilk. There’s eight kilometres of waterfront, and a boat tour that’s totally worth the time. Tahbilk has a commitment to sustainability and carbon neutrality that is leading the way for the wine industry.
‘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.
Great restaurant names are like rings on a stranger’s fingers – they all have a story, and you need to find out what those stories are. Lipari is a little town off the coast of Sicily, and chef/owner Joe’s mother was from there. She was also the inspiration behind the opening of this place. Joe was a latecomer to commercial kitchens – following a dream, he quit his job of many years. Little Lipari is a labour of love, a passion for food and a show of humble hospitality, inspired by his mother.
Little Lipari is classic Italian generous hospitality, and it’s goddamn awesome. Joe takes seasonal produce (and the stuff his adoring customers bring him) and packs flavour into simple Italian dishes. The gnocchi is iconic, a true classic. Joe makes a light lemony hollandaise for his take on eggs Benedict with bartered lemons from a customer.
Coffee at Lipari is a classic Italian thing too – a typically dark and luscious roast.
The fit-out was inspired by local legend Tank, whose artwork adorns the town of Shepparton, most recognisably in the form of colourful fibreglass cows.
The cellar door at Tallis Wines commands what can only be described as a spectacular view. Across lush fields of grain crops, 360 degrees into the vast distance. There is the vineyard down the hill a little, but the Tallis family made the right choice when they decided that the hilltop outside Dookie was the best place for the ‘wow factor’.
Also worthy of a little ‘wow’ is the wine. The soil here is similar to Tuscany, and Tallis makes the most of it with generous, full-flavoured wines. The new release shiraz stood out, with flavours typical of the soils that at one time produced up to one third of the wines made in Victoria.
Food at Tallis is a simple affair. Platters of local produce, pickles, charcuterie, cheeses and relishes are simple and well curated. They are plenty for a hungry couple, and the perfect foil to any of the wines available by the glass.
Take a mo to stretch your legs and follow the signs on the Yorta Yorta interpretive trail as you walk to the peak of the hill. You’ll not only take in the extraordinary view, but you’ll learn a few things about the original custodians of the land, too.
Earning ‘hats’ in the restaurant trade is a vexed thing. It can become an obsession for those who just can’t quite make the grade. But the reality is, for those who have ‘it’, ‘the knack’, ‘the x-factor’ – it just happens. Ten Minutes by Tractor has all of that, and sitting down to one of the memorable lunches of a lifetime, it felt like things happened easily. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable, the staff cheerful and courteous.
Obviously, this appearance belies the preparation and hard work that actually goes on to make it look easy. Chef Stuart Bell has been perfecting the food here for nine years, and before that with the likes of Phillipe Mouchel, Langtons and Liberté, and Alain Fabrègues at Loose Box, as well as Jacques Reymond. His food is an exercise in yin and yang, a balancing act. It’s visually stunning, and the chef’s philosophy is apparent in the flavours.
Of course, the food is only half the picture at Ten Minutes by Tractor. Equal attention is paid to the creation of cold-climate wines of great quality. Leave a little extra time to go through the whole range. The Estate wines age beautifully, so it’s worth taking home more than one, because they’re hard to keep for too long without opening.
It’s an unassuming introduction to Port Phillip Estate, through a door that feels a little bit industrial and a little bit James Bond. It opens out into the most extraordinary view across the fields to the ocean, with cellar door and casual bistro to the right, and more formal restaurant to the left.
There is a kind of curious dissonance in the slightly casual chairs and the formal settings, the friendliness of the staff and the formality of the restaurant fit-out. It’s like the formality has been dialled down in a venue where the quality has been dialled way up. It’s a feeling that carries through to the food. It’s hard to describe the visceral experience of sitting in front of such beautiful food. It’s an exercise in the balance of beautiful presentation without overshadowing the beautiful produce. Desserts are a stunning display of skill, but still don’t overshadow the produce they’re made from. That produce is locally sourced wherever possible, and the menu is seasonal.
The cellar-door experience is worth leaving a little extra time for. The wines of the estate are renowned for their quality.
For those wanting a little more time to take it all in, the accommodation is spectacular and shares that view across the fields to the ocean.