A combination of inspiration, isolation, enthusiasm and necessity has made country Victorian dining some of the most thrilling and engaging in Australia.
“Regional dining has exploded,” says Brigitte Hafner, chef and owner of Tedesca Osteria on the Mornington Peninsula, one of five finalists for the Regional Restaurant of the Year award in The Age Good Food Guide, which will be released on November 15.
Hafner and her business partner, James Broadway, closed their Fitzroy venue Gertrude Street Enoteca soon after opening their Red Hill restaurant in the summer of 2020. The pandemic was a factor but it’s the pleasures of country life that have captivated both the restaurateurs and their customers.
“Post-COVID, people are excited to be out of the city,” says Hafner. “It’s a no-brainer. A lot of people hit the wall in the city and discovered how beautiful the country is. Previously, they may have rented a place here, or just visited on weekends. Now we’ve seen a lot of people flip it: they live on the peninsula and spend a couple of days at an apartment in the city.”
Diners reap the benefits of Hafner’s closer connection to produce. “There are great suppliers in the city but you do tend to think of a dish and order the ingredients in,” she says. “In the country, it’s much more direct. The inspiration is literally in front of you. Your menu is basically popping out of the ground.”
All five restaurant finalists require diners to eat from a tasting menu. “We ditched a la carte and went to a set menu,” says Michael Ryan, owner-chef of Provenance in Beechworth. “It’s about ensuring that our small team can produce at the level we aspire to and focusing on what we do best.” Diners are treated to poised, intricate Japanese-influenced morsels presented as multi-dish courses. “There are fewer moving parts, which minimises food waste. We can cater exactly to the quantities we need,” says Ryan.
The pandemic prompted many restaurateurs to develop new income streams. Ryan spent Victoria’s second lockdown making alcoholic extractions of more than 120 botanicals, then released a range of herbal liqueurs inspired by Italian amaro under his Beechworth Bitters brand. They’re available at the restaurant, enriching and deepening the dining experience, as well as via wholesale and retail channels. “It’s useful in getting through peaks and troughs of restaurant trade,” he says.
In Port Fairy, Fen owners Ryan and Kirstyn Sessions have a retail food, wine and homewares store by day and a 14-seat fine dining restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights. “We utilise the space as much as we can by running two little businesses,” says Ryan Sessions. Minimising the reliance on staff and smoothing out seasonal fluctuations are the main drivers. “It’s virtually impossible to find staff,” says Sessions. “We structure it so we can be consistently full rather than having a restaurant that sits half-empty six months of the year.”
The upside for diners is an inventive menu of extraordinary clarity. The Age‘s chief reviewer Besha Rodell rhapsodised about scallop bathed in buttermilk and topped with salmon roe, and a mousse made from duck liver crusted with native nuts. “It’s just me in the kitchen,” says Sessions. “I have a big workload each week but it’s creative: there are always a thousand things going through my mind.”
Regional Restaurant of the Year Finalists
Open just two nights a week to 14 diners, Fen offers singular seafood-driven fine dining on the western Victorian coast.
24 Bank Street, Port Fairy, fenportfairy.com.au
Chef Tobin Kent serves 12 diners at a time, using ingredients he has grown and foraged near Geelong.
95 Minya Lane, Connewarre, moonahrestaurant.com.au
A grand bank building is a delightful setting for chef Michael Ryan’s Japanese-influenced food, presented via 18 dishes over four courses.
86 Ford Street, Beechworth, theprovenance.com.au
Brigitte Hafner cooks four set-menu lunches a week for guests gathered around her open kitchen backed by a wood oven.
1175 Mornington-Flinders Road, Red Hill, tedesca.com.au
Ten Minutes by Tractor
An exemplary winery dining room with outstanding views and locally focused tasting menus from chef Hayden Ellis.
1333 Mornington Flinders Road, Main Ridge, tenminutesbytractor.com.au
The Good Food Guide 2023 magazine is on sale from November 15 for $9.95 at newsagents and supermarkets or pre-order from thestore.com.au.