On a glorious spring day in Melbourne, one of the best things to do is get out of the city. Yarra Valley is so close to Melbourne you can almost smell the vines. Being so close, there is a multitude of food and wine options in the towns of the Yarra Valley, such as Healesville.
We called De Bortoli and they were full for lunch. We called Oakridge Estate, and they were full, but told us that tables would open up outside depending on the weather. Or at least I thought it was the weather. Given the temperature and sunshine was fantastic, it seems the operative word was “whether” as used in the sentence “whether they could be bothered setting them and making them available”. We drove close to an hour to find that they decided no a la carte would be happening on the outdoor tables.
We set out for the town of Healesville, knowing there are some great options, and Innocent Bystander was first on the list. When we got to the door and the sign said no tables to 2.30pm we knew we were behind the eight ball. Thankfully a quick thinking waitperson saw us starting to leave to stroll down the street and said we could have a table outside, which was great. The sun was being kind and it was glorious even in direct light. That standard of service was kept throughout the meal.
The combination of the weather and this dynamic space that is always busy and atmospheric, makes for an exciting meal. We are told that if we haven’t been here for a while the menu and the style has changed. It is still modern, and while several dishes have Mediterranean flavours, it is not classic tapas.
We choose the salt cod and potato fritters with roast garlic aioli to begin. The fritters are generous on the salted cod, which means the flavour is outstanding, the potato providing the softness inside the beautifully fried exterior. The roasted garlic aioli is thick and there’s enough of it to coat the fritters without overpowering them.
Next we try the pan fried market fish (Dory) with baby fennel, tomato and olive braise. The fennel is one of the stars in this divine dish. It seems to be slowly roasted and is tender without any loss of flavour. The tomato and olive braise provides some classic flavours to compliment the perfectly pan fried fillet of Dory. This dish purports to be a shared dish, but it is equally fine as a main in itself.
Last we have the roast lamb rump with baby carrots, onions, raisins and pine nuts. The lamb is nicely cooked with most pieces still close to perfectly pink. The spice rub used for the lamb is amazing. The baby carrots are so good they could be a dish in themselves. The raisins and pine nuts are good accompaniments too.
The aspect that stands out in the food is everything having its place, and classic flavour combinations with some pizzazz. It is inspired food. On the wine side, Giants Steps and Innocent Bystander are at home in their cellar door here and the Giant Steps 2013 Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay is a beauty. Unlike other cellar doors, other producer’s wines are available, but past experience leads us to stick with the home team.
When it first opened, the risk in design and location right down the end of the Healesville strip, made this restaurant and cellar door a trend setter. It seems there has been no resting on its laurels though. Not only that, the design continues to be a feature of the area, and somehow belongs in a broader sense as so many buildings close by mimic it. One way or another, the attention to detail shown in all aspects provides a model for all other cellar door restaurants.