Wine glass and beer-tasting paddle in hand we hit the Yarra Valley’s cellar doors and breweries. But being sensible (and greedy) we thought it best to line our stomachs along the way and check out the region’s pub food, pizzerias and fine dining (ok, we only really did one fine dining place, but in our defence we had to save our pennies for all those bottles of plonk).
Plus the posh places get all the press, so it’s time to champion the rest. First stop: Hargreaves Hill Brewing Company at 25 Bell Street, Yarra Glen. Home to six craft beers this boutique brewery and restaurant is sitting pretty in an old bank, meaning high ceilings, restored fireplaces and ye olde fittings and fixtures. With a more modern exposed brick section at the back and outside eating area, too. Anyway, the food….
We started off with a great salt and pepper-style calamari with lovely crunchy chives and spring onions on top and creamy garlic aioli, followed by (entree-size) beetroot risotto with goats’ cheese. Vibrantly coloured it looked great on the plate – earthy, sweet and salty all at the same time. Only complaint, the cheese was so chilled it lost some flavour and had trouble combining with the risotto. On the whole though, a really well thought-out flavour combo. And then the heart-attack inducing steak sandwich – tender, well-cooked meat in toasted sourdough with fresh salad, great mayo and pickles on the side. Gourmet pub food at its very best.
After all that, it’s a miracle we had room for dinner. But being a dedicated team of two we pushed on through to the restaurant at Wild Cattle Creek. Now, I’ll admit it. I had my reservations about a place called Rustic Charm but, thankfully, the food was good enough for us to forgive the cheesy name and rather dated interior. (An aside – the recently revamped self-contained villas at this welcoming winery are luxuriously modern – highly recommend). So for starters, fresh-from-the-oven ‘flowerpot’ bread with olive oil, balsamic and a Moroccan ras-el-hanout / dukkah-style spice blend with lemon myrtle. Served in a little terracotta pot the bread is dense but not heavy and I like the way it draws on flavours native to the outback.
Next, an entree of peanut-crusted pork belly with a crunchy Asian salad and sweet soy dressing. Good mix of gelatinous fat and juicy meat and the crushed peanuts on top worked well with the Asian flavours.
Then prosciutto, gorgonzola and rocket salad with a sticky fig vinaigrette. Heaps of cheese so thumbs up from me. Great salt and sweet things going on here.
Mains: pancetta-wrapped eye fillet with a punchy green herb crust, cauliflower puree and caramelised shallots, and crumbed lamb shank on chickpea mash with spicy curry sauce. Both dishes were winners – meat really well cooked – but if I had to choose I would go the lamb. Sliding-off-the-bone tender the sweetness of the lamb was just great with the chickpea and curry elements. Forget spice in the Indian curry sense of the word, this was a well-seasoned, rich Middle Eastern taste – I would hazard a guess at cinnamon and turmeric.
Couldn’t decide between the desserts so opted for the sharing plate, which turned out to be really good value for money as you got four generous-sized sweets plus a scoop of ice cream for $26.50 – less than double the price of two single desserts. Highlights: white chocolate mouse with raspberry sauce and burnt honey creme brulee (although less sure about the rosemary shortbread). Also on the plate was chocolate mint vacherin with warm chocolate sauce and a chocolate cake-meets-brownie kind of affair. It all goes a bit hazy at this point as the elastic in my tights threatened to give way. Oh yeah, wine – shiraz, viognier and reisling all winners from Wild Cattle Creek (also a nice pinot noir/chardonnay sparkling, but there is better to be had elsewhere in the valley – Mandala’s Blanc de Blanc for example – 100% chardonnay with hints of toasty brioche, lemon, grapefruit and citrus).