Victoria victorious

September 2009

our columnist and his wife recently took a trip through Victoria, from Natimuk to Birregurra to Melbourne, and it must be said that we ate and drank very well indeed. Natimuk near Horsham is not a place you would visit unless you were a keen rock climber — Mt Arapiles arises, miraculously, like Uluru out of a flat and featureless landscape — or, like me, you had family connections. But if you do find yourself there, you’ll stay at the National Hotel (65 Main Street, Ph 03 5387 1300) and you’ll eat there as well: no choice, really, but no hardship, especially if  Struddy’s Pies & Pinots are being served: a duck and cherry pie with a glass of T’Gallant Juliet Pinot Noir is what I’d call a superior counter lunch.

Next stop was a meal with farmer/cook George Biron and partner/artist Diane Garrett at their beautiful restaurant Sunnybrae (Cape Otway Road, cnr Lorne Road, Ph 03 5236 2276) at Birregurra near Colac about an hour and a half from Melbourne.. George’s food comes from his garden and his soul. It’s “enjoy me” food, not “look at me” food. The first course was a deep, rich Roman broth with egg and parmigiano, then as we were lucky to be there for the first of the artichokes and asparagus, we had them simply steamed and fried with olive oil from their own olives.

With much lusciousness in between (the sweetbreads! The black and white pudding from butcher Peter Gruner in St Kilda!), we finished with a bay leaf pannacotta served with the last of the quinces that had been cooked ever so slowly overnight in the kitchen’s woodfired oven — dessert of the year. We had a couple of interesting bottles of Gary Farr’s pinot noirs, a very early one from Clyde Park (1990) and a much later example from Bannockburn (2006), and finished with a grappa made from Morello cherry must by a Croatian mate of George’s. Diane’s gorgeous paintings and collages are in every corner. Check out George’s blog at www.georgebiron.com and you’ll get something of the flavour of what is one of my favourite places in Australia.

And next time we’re down that way, which won’t be too long, we’ll be eating at the Royal Mail Hotel (98 Parker Street Dunkeld, Ph 03 5577  2241) where chef Dan Hunter also grows a  lot of his own and cooks it in his own fashion, one he has arrived at after working as head chef at Mugaritz in San Sebastiàn. This place is a real find, with a wine list the size of a telephone book — 12 pages of pinot noirs! — and a reputation that has spread far and wide.

We did eat at Frank Camorra’s MoVida (1 Hosier Lane Melbourne, Ph 03 9663 3038) billed by self-proclaimed arbiters of such things as “the best Spanish restaurant in Australia”. For once, I agree. Tucked into one of those pokey little lanes beloved of Melbournites (just over the road from the crazy crazed Federation Square), it’s an unpretentious set of rooms divided into barside and tableside. We sat barside — not at the bar but at a tiny table — and ate far too many small servings of exquisite Hispanic tucker accompanied by a rich and rewarding Muga Riserva from the Rioja, which reminded us what tempranillo is all about.

There were too many dishes to go into, but we kicked off with a sensual and sensational Cantabrian anchovy on toast with a smoked tomato sorbet, fried sea bream on a bed of lentils, San Jacobos — little balls of Hunter Valley semi-boned quail (from our old mate Charlie Scott at Redgate Farm) stuffed with Mahon cheese and jamón — and a superb slow-cooked ox tongue. How did we manage to fit in the Basque tart of quince and chestnuts with goat cheese icecream? Probably by helping it slip down with a couple of glasses of Piedra Luenga Pedro Ximenez from Montilla Moriles.

What a delight it is to be in a city where you can get around easily — by tram, train or bus with a single day pass ticket ($6.80 takes you anywhere). Oh, Sydney, when will you learn? We stayed at a little hotel in St Kilda that also reminded me of Paris or Barcelona and which I thoroughly recommend — Tolarno Hotel (42 Fitzroy Street St Kilda, Ph 03 9534 0200). It has a restaurant run by Guy Grossi (of Grossi Florentino) and a fascinating folk history, which you can read on the walls of the hotel.

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