If you were driving back to Melbourne from Dunkeld, you’d be well placed to stop in Daylesford, a spa town in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Its beating heart is the gorgeous Lake House, a 33-year-old hotel run by the talented and creative Wolf-Tasker family. From the sundeck at its fine-dining restaurant, guests can sip on a spritzer and take in Lake Daylesford and the Wombat State Forest beyond. Somewhere in the background, resident geese make a noisy fuss and kookaburras swoop in and out of the trees.
Lake House’s 33 rooms and suites jut in and out of a magical mess of a garden, part herbaceous, part floral, part wooded. The rambling greenery is representative of a kitchen that has, from day one, been in rhythm with the seasons. Its culinary director, Alla Wolf-Tasker, captures this best in her missive at the top of the menu: “The latest arrival of summer we’ve seen for years has turned things topsy-turvy for gardeners, farmers, and those of us who enjoy using produce from the region,” she muses. “I imagine we’ll be reprinting this menu often, as the season progresses and new produce at its peak starts coming through the doors.” The menu goes on to list some of the local producers that have contributed to the pantry: Vicki and Nick Sher’s wagyu herd in Ballan, fish from Jan and Robert Jones’s Tuki Trout Farm, chickens from Bruce Burton’s Milking Yard Farm, eels from Ben Osborne in Skipton.
While Lake House has long led the charge for local and homegrown produce, its reputation also extends to leading regional hospitality trends. One that is right in their sweet spot, says Alla’s daughter Larissa Wolf-Tasker, is the increasing number of Melburnians wanting to combine short accessible breaks with fine dining.
“For a while it felt like if you wanted a world-class escape, you needed to go overseas to get the full package,” she says. “Now, in Australia, and particularly Melbourne, you can drive in any direction and find a gorgeous and interesting destination.”
It’s true: main roads in any direction from Melbourne lead to regional food and wine havens. Aside from the Royal Mail and Brae, the historic gold-mining town of Beechworth lays claim to Provenance, an à la carte place distinctly inspired by Japanese ingredients and set in an old bank building where you can bed down in one of four suites. In nearby King Valley, on a hill overlooking vineyards, Chrismont Wines’ relatively new restaurant and tasting room serves Italian favorites such as homemade gnocchi doused in fresh sage and melty butter. You can leave armed with a case of the locally grown prosecco or check in to the estate’s three-bedroom guesthouse. Up in the far northwest of the state, where farmland turns into desert, guests of the historic Mildura Grand hotel provide a captive audience for Stefano’s, a two-hat restaurant that revels in the produce of the past century’s Italian immigrants.
Then there is Jackalope. Opened in April on the Mornington Peninsula, this 42-room stunner is set to be the most talked about hotel debut in Australia this year, and for good reason. Chinese-born, Melbourne-based owner Louis Li has spent millions turning a rolling country vineyard into the kind of modern architectural retreat you’d expect to find in California. The hotel’s restaurants are raising the bar to attract destination diners from Melbourne and don’t fall short on glamour and intrigue. Fine diner Doot Doot Doot is a contemporary space with an open kitchen and cool black-clad staff who wouldn’t look out of place in a fashion ad. Floating above the entire dining area is an eye-popping chandelier by Victorian lighting designer Jan Flook; on the tables below it, golden cutlery pops against black ceramic plates, making artwork of each beautifully crafted dish. The eight-course tasting menu marries local produce—spanner crab, lamb loin, goat curd—with exotic flavors like furikake, guanciale, and bottarga. The paired wines, including a rare Australia-made, Spanish-style fino sherry from Beechworth’s Pennyweight Winery, hail from small regional winemakers including the property’s own Willow Creek vineyard. The result is wines with organic and biodynamic pedigrees and raw flavor profiles that fall nicely into the natural wine trend. Casual bistro Rare Hare, meanwhile, serves local craft tap beers and a wood-fired oven inspires deep, smoky flavors in dishes like roasted bone marrow served with sambal and crisp shallots. Head chef Guy Stanway credits his style to half a decade living in Asia. “That left an indelible mark on my palate and plates,” he says, adding, “By using ingredients grown on property and sourced from surrounding farms, and pairing dishes with wines produced on-site, we can offer a genuine and unique regional experience.”
The same could be said for Ezard at Levantine Hill in the wine-rich Yarra Valley, which won the Good Food Guide’s publicly voted People’s Choice Award for 2017. A two-year-old outpost of beloved Melbourne chef Teage Ezard, the restaurant’s avant-garde architecture, umbrella-studded forecourt, and cradling views of the Levantine Hill estate’s vineyards gives it a salubrious atmosphere softened by serenading Spanish guitar players on the weekend. The gourmet tasting menu and wine pairing show off the genius of a city chef working with regional produce and a resident winemaker. A slow-cooked organic farm egg is served basking in pureed sweetcorn and an emulsion meant to evoke a humble cheese on toast; dehydrated bacon crumbs are sprinkled on top for a perfect brunch offering. It is paired with Levantine Hill’s 2015 Chardonnay, the ripe young flavors cutting through the rich and creamy yolkiness of the dish. I also try a garden salad of pea panna cotta, asparagus, leaves, and petals, which takes on a nutty, earthy flavor with the addition of jamón ibérico and dehydrated black olive “soil.” Accompanied by the winery’s 2014 Mélange Traditionnel Blanc, it’s unforgettable.
In neighboring Coldstream, the restaurant at the family-owned Oakridge Wines is the brainchild of head chef Matt Stone, who derives his seasonal menu from a thriving kitchen garden and a region rich with artisan food producers with an ethical bent. One standout dish is trout caviar, served with sour cream, garden herbs, and a swirl of house-made escargot pastry. The roe is from Yarra Valley Trout Caviar, an aquaculture farm on the nearby Rubicon River. “Unlike most caviar farms,” the menu explains, “the trout here aren’t killed to harvest the eggs. They are put to sleep in a bath of clove oil, and then the belly of the fish is massaged to extract the roe. When the fish has been milked it’s woken in fresh water and lives on.” Cam, the restaurant manager, tells me without a hint of mirth that they’ve only lost one trout to date.
Now, that kind of dedication to regional dining has got to be worth leaving the city for.
4285 Cape Otway Rd., Birregurra; 61-3/5236-2226. Suites from US$392.
Ryan Plc., Geelong; 61-3/5222-2266.
98 Parker St., Dunkeld; 61-3/5577-2241. Doubles from US$225.
King St., Daylesford; 61-3/5348-3329.
Half board from US$238 per person.
86 Ford St., Beechworth; 61-3/5728-1786.
Doubles from US$138.
251 Upper King River Rd., Cheshunt; 61-3/5729-8220.
Doubles from US$122.
Mildura Grand Hotel, Langtree Ave., Mildura; 61-3/5022-0881.
882 Maroondah Hwy., Coldstream; 61-3/5962-1333.
864 Maroondah Hwy., Coldstream; 61-3/9738-9900.
166 Balnarring Rd., Merricks North; 61-3/5931-2500.
Doubles from US$518.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that chef Robin Wickens previously worked at Melbourne’s Attica restaurant. The restaurant in question was, in fact, Interlude, not Attica.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Taste of Victoria”).