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Is Sorrento Victoria’s new dining capital?

Words by Richard Cornish
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Sorrento’s colonial limestone buildings look out over a half moon of Norfolk Island pines onto white sands framing the azure blue waters of Port Phillip. A community of seafarers, surfers, retirees, and tradies who co-exist with weekend and summer influx of visitors, it may be remarkably beautiful, but it has never truly been a dining destination.

While Bistro Elba has punched above its weight for years, offering great wines and excellent meals based on local produce, Sorrento has not otherwise had an overabundance of great food offers.

Come 2022, and the situation has been completely overturned. Sorrento is now almost overburdened by experienced, talented chefs with venues filled with some big culinary names. Scott Pickett opened Audrey’s, his seafood-focused restaurant at the Continental Hotel. Ashley Hicks, who cooked with Tom Aikens in London, moved to Sorrento to open the refurbished Stringers Store. This week the Hotel Sorrento reopens its bar and dining room with a menu overseen by George Calombaris. Down by the water’s edge is modern fine-dining pioneer Paul Wilson who is back in the kitchen at Morgan’s Sorrento.

“I love to fish. I love the beach. I love living in Sorrento,” says Paul Wilson. He is on the pans cooking French-inspired dishes in this historic village near the end of the Mornington Peninsula. Paul led the Brit-pack chef scene in the early 2000s making a name for himself at the Park Hyatt restaurant Radii with a dish of truffled polenta and soft egg. His oyster nights at the Botanical Hotel in South Yarra were infamous, and he bought the dodgy Newmarket Hotel in St Kilda back to a place of culinary worthiness.

Now he’s at Morgan’s Sorrento, a smart casual bistro, flooded with light with an enviable bayside view. “Being down here means I am close to my favourite suppliers,” says Paul. He buys directly from Torello Farm, Hawke’s Farm, Harry from Flinders Mussels, and Mock’s Orchards. To prove a point, he brings out a barley-fed beef rib, braised in stock for six hours, finished in the oven and served with a single slow-cooked carrot. ‘The carrot is from Hawke’s Farm at Boneo,” he says proudly. “I treat it like a good piece of beef and slowly braise it in stock.” He follows this with a stunning tarte tartin made with the bio-dynamic apples from Mock’s at Main Ridge, nestling on a golden buttery puff pastry base.

I have always chosen to open places where I could enrich the community, and I felt there was an opportunity to make a contribution here in Sorrento, close to a great food bowl and wine region. And it is so bloody beautiful.

One of Paul Wilson’s kitchen acolytes is Ash Hicks. He worked with Paul at Circa at the Prince in St Kilda. Now he is Executive Chef for the Darling Group overseeing venues such as Higher Ground and Dundas and Fausset in Albert Park. He is presently in Sorrento supervising the opening of Stringers. Set in the colonial-era limestone building and formerly a store.

Stringers is now a café, pizzeria, and providore set in the clean, lean, cool interior by architect Chris Connell. “I am absolutely in love with the limestone walls,” says Ash. “The courtyard has been opened up, and it is this beautiful limestone encased garden,” he explains. We have put a pizza oven in, Napoli style. It rotates and can do a pizza to perfection in two minutes thirty seconds.” While the bake is fast, the dough takes 72 hours to prove, developing a mass of flavour to underpin Ash’s scant three toppings. His favourite is That’s Amore fresh mozzarella and Mr. Canubi mortadella over a layer of San Marzano tomatoes. “At present it’s breakfast and lunch,” he says. “The offer is simple but very, very good. We are making our own brass die extruded pasta every day. For breakfast come and try the chilli eggs,” he says. This is a dish of folded eggs topped with whipped goats curd and what he describes as a fiery caponata laced with caper brine. “But this is a space for everyone,” he adds. “Like Sorrento, it is beautiful and casual.”

Up the hill is Hotel Sorrento. This beautiful 150-year-old building, with its iron lacework and Italianate tower, re-opened its dining room last week under the careful watch of celebrity chef George Calombaris. The former MasterChef star has teamed up with the Pitt family, owners of the 1872 hotel, to work on the new menu and the opening of a Cantonese-inspired restaurant.

The chef moved to a home in the Peninsula hinterland recently and told the media that he has been welcomed by the Mornington Peninsula community and is focusing on the ‘simple things in life’. While Calombaris is not hands-on in the kitchen, his role as Culinary Director sees a brand-new menu that borrows heavily from the Mediterranean with dishes like porchetta, swordfish, salt cod croquettes, and pub favourites like parma, schnitzel, and cheeseburger. In October, the old downstairs ballroom will open as Shi Hui Shi. At the time of writing, George had not yet finished the Cantonese-style menu, but we are promised an umami-filled offering with loads of old-school favourites given a modern twist.

Another big-name Melbourne chef who has taken digs down the pointy end of the Peninsula is Scott Pickett. He has a house near the newly re-opened Continental Hotel, a venture in which he is heavily involved. “When we first started work on the ‘Conti’, we wanted to make sure there was somewhere in this beautiful old hotel for everyone,” he says referring to the four-story 1875 pub. It was built by George Coppin, who also ran the steamships that bought visitors down the bay from Melbourne in the 1800s. He connected the ferry to the hotel with a tramway. In the 1880s Sorrento was a thriving place for Melbourne’s well-to-do leisure seekers. The historic building recently underwent a multi-million dollar refurbishment.

This includes 106 five-star rooms, now managed by the Intercontinental Hotel. Scott worked with property developer The Trenerry Group and Melbourne pub guru Craig Shearer to take on the food and beverage offer that extends to 12 different outlets within the expansive hotel. “I wanted to have an exceptional seafood restaurant but also make sure I could still have a place to go with my mates after a day fishing,” he says.

Downstairs in the public bar you can order pub dishes such as perfect fish and chips and Thai curries while in the expansive Atrium, there are more sophisticated dishes straight from the wood-fired Josper grill in the Atrium. Upstairs is the luxurious Audrey’s, a light-filled dining room looking out over the bay where you can enjoy the luxury of a lobster and caviar tartlet, then a nibble of eel with malt glaze or cured kingfish ham on a rye crisp washed down with a glass of premier crus blanc de blanc Champagne. “Sorrento has always been a place for leisure and holidaymakers,” says Pickett. “With this re-development and others around Sorrento, this beautiful town is regaining the glamour it had in its heyday.”

We wish to acknowledge the Bunurong people as traditional owners of this land and to pay our respects to their Elders, past and present.
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