Ten Minutes By Tractor – Red Hill, Mornington Peninsula – May 2017 – Lunch

Catherine, and her Mum, Sandra, in the garden

Is it possible to feel like a regular when your second visit to a restaurant is eight years apart? Perhaps that is a KPI for Ten Minutes By Tractor. Without any facade, the staff have you feeling completely at ease in an instant.

Looking around the room, the recent renovation has been nicely undertaken, not making a big statement but certainly leaving a very comfortable dining room to spend three hours over lunch. The seats in particular are the perfect choice, both well designed, and like your favourite couch. As you can imagine, there is plenty of emphasis in having a good view of the vines in this beautiful part of the world.

Notwithstanding first class service, and a terrific newly renovated dining room, I want to talk about one dish. Offal has never been the flavour of the month. It has been lauded for reason over a long time, but has never escalated to the heights of true popularity. Perhaps it never will be. When you look at a “balanced” restaurant menu you would ordinarily expect certain main star ingredients, some choice of secondary stars, and then something surprising. I’m afraid while beef, chicken, and fish take that staring role, offal has always been kept to the “surprise” meaning it gets a gig only on occasion.

Veal sweetbreads, mushrooms, charred baby leeks, chestnuts

While livers take the cake, sweetbreads (which actually sound like a cake) must be the second most unsexy ingredient going around. I mean they actually gave them a name that tries to confuse the customer into having a go! Ten Minutes By Tractor are serving veal sweetbreads for entree, and like a kid in a candy shop, I’m excited. To serve offal, you need to honour the flavour, but present it looking delicious (in spite of itself) and with complimentary accompaniments (more than other dishes).

Slow cooked goat, beetroot pasta, pickled beetroots, Main Ridge caprinella goats’ cheese

That is why I’m focussing on this dish. It came out on a black plate, showing off fabulous presentation skills of the chefs, but not hiding the sweetbreads, and actually highlighting them. The visual sear on the sweetbreads translates to the taste. Soft but deep gaminess, cooked in balance, and enhanced with the sauce and complimentary earthy mushrooms. I was not completely sold on the chestnuts in the dish, but this was close to perfection.

Cauliflower and mushroom, mushroom and cauliflower royal, black pearl barley

There are some choices to be made on the menu with a tasting menu, and a prix fixe option of two or three courses. We chose to have three courses ($99). It is best to not have any plans following the meal, with an amuse to begin, and a pre-dessert, making for a long and enjoyable meal. As well as having the sweetbreads, there is good diversity in the menu. Catherine’s Mum Sandra tried the roasted cauliflower to start. With a variety of mushrooms, a flavoursome theme on the menu, black pearl barley, and a “mushroom and cauliflower royal”, this is a nicely executed vegetarian dish. For her entree, Catherine opted for the slow cooked goat with beetroot pasta, pickled beetroot and goat’s cheese. Again, presentation is superb, and backed up by the taste.

Smoked breast of Great Ocean Road duck, mushrooms, celeriac, walnut crunch

Not easily put off by rich gamey dishes, next I was trying the smoked breast of Great Ocean Road duck. The duck was nicely cooked, and as I got further into the dish, the sweet walnut crunch dulled, starting to combine and balance the richer flavours of the mushrooms and celeriac. Both Catherine, and Sandra, tried the roasted hapuka which is a fish I’ve always loved. Here it is cooked with skill, and combined with both a persillade (mainly parsley) and lovage puree. The cauliflower is thinly sliced on top and it all makes for a delicious dish.

Roasted hapuka, lovage puree, heritage cauliflower, persillade

There is some serious flair here. A meal is more than a simple three courses. When the blood orange sorbet refresher comes out we know we are being spoilt. The flavours are as intense as you would like for a refreshing, but indulgent, interlude between mains and dessert. Then there is dessert itself. The colours, textures, tastes, and look of these dishes shows why it is a good idea to limit options on a menu. Make every dish exceptional and choice is not so important. Probably the only critique is the length of time it took for dessert to come out, meaning my 3.30pm conference call was a bit of a rush.

Poached pear, cashmere ice cream, candied chestnuts, slow roasted grapes

Michel Cluizel chocolate pave, cassis mousse, beetroot and creme fraiche ice cream, chocolate cake

Poached estate quince, candied ginger, sable, verjuice gel

Sandra’s came with the classic acknowledgement of a special day, but the combination was hard to beat. Quince from out the back seems healthy enough, but when combined with the sponge, crisps, gels and sorbets it is something else! My chocolate everything with cassis was its equal on the richer side. I’ve never rated food based on size, but this was a classic dish for sharing. Then there was Catherine’s poached pears which is not as popular as a few decades ago, but is a classic for a reason. Modern desserts have similar balance, texture and composition, but they don’t get much better than these.

Blood orange sorbet

I knew Ten Minutes By Tractor was a great place to dine. Though it had been several years since I’d had the experience first hand. At this stage of the day, albeit running out for a work call, I couldn’t quite believe how good today’s lunch actually was. It is still sinking in.

Ten Minutes by Tractor Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Oakridge – Yarra Valley – Thursday 15 December 2016 – Lunch

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A few weeks ago, a group of us visited Rochford Winery for their “A Day On The Green” which involves a casual Saturday on the lawn in the beautiful Yarra Valley watching great bands. As I drove towards Oakridge Winery our main concern from that day was answered – the stage is kept broadly intact between gigs!

That was a momentous day, but today is no less momentous. I have my Mum in town and I’ve finally secured a lunch booking at Oakridge. In recent times, Matt Stone has stamped his class on this heavenly patch on Maroondah Highway near Healesville. The long, glass dominant, streamlined building, with more than a flourish of red making it stand out from the leafy vines, is impressive.

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Like most wine regions, the Yarra Valley is full of excitement. There are some glorious vineyards, the quality of restaurants is continually growing, and the area is bordered by green hilltops and mountains. On days other than today, it takes only a little over an hour to get here, but alas, there are roadworks galore today.

One of the great things about winery restaurants is the ability to make the most of the view. Being outside the city means there is less expense for an incredible fitout, and the abundance of land available means any shape can be used that accommodates the scene. Here the long rectangular building runs lengthwise to one of the vineyard blocks. From my vantage point I can see right down between the trellises down to the irrigation lake. It is gorgeous.

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Another great thing is the incredible wines on offer. Usually back vintages are available, along with the reserve styles, often at no real mark-up. Here is no exception with the 864 (Reserve) Pinot Noir available by the glass, and a 2009 Chardonnay also by the glass. To begin the Chardonnay is surprisingly fresh for a seven year old, made in a high quality fashion, with great subtlety and softness.

It combines well with my entrée of pastry with caraway seeds sitting alongside a medley of ocean trout, thinly sliced vegetables, dill and caviar. The presentation is immaculate, but surprising, with the pastry completely separate. Keeping it separated does assist with the texture, each bite crisp, softened by the fresh trout cream, and complimented by the other fresh ingredients.

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While first course was lovely, I had high hopes for the dry aged duck breast. Here, again, the presentation is simple and inviting. The duck breast is beautifully cooked, adorned by a delicious sauce, and classically matched with beetroot and berries. It is the type of duck dish that you would use to convert a non-believer. Expertly prepared, but not confronting.

The 864 Pinot is ridiculously good, especially when enjoyed alongside the duck. The whole cliché of duck and pinot is one of the best clichés in my book. The pinot noir fruit from nearby higher altitude Yarra vines is exceptionally made into a quality wine, but it is costly as a result.

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Mum also enjoyed the wines and her couple of courses. She began with the Spring vegetable tart, and while it sounded simple, the staff said it is a great dish to try. They were not wrong, with a novel composition of flat (but flakey) pastry topped with fresh cheese, vegetables and leaves. As pretty as it is a nod to the produce available in the valley.

It is always a point of difference when the main courses are even better than the entrees. For a time I was often ordering two entrees because mains were used more to fill an appetite and less to provide interest, and show technique. That has changed at more and more restaurants. Here, Mum’s lamb was not just beautifully roasted, but was presented with flair, the croutons providing texture, and the puree depth.

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The service we received was nice, without being a talking point. Later in the meal we found the sommelier to have excellent knowledge of the wines and the vineyard, as you would hope for, and his explanations to some of our questions provided the cream on top of this fantastic experience.

Driving away from Oakridge was hard. We had enjoyed a fabulous lunch but found some late afternoon traffic back into Melbourne that was pre-Christmas crazy! Luckily the driving had been more than worth the effort. Dining at Oakridge is memorable for many reasons – if only we had time to get out to the Yarra more often.

Oakridge Wines Cellar Door and Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Trentham Estate Winery – Trentham Cliffs – Wednesday 29 July 2015 – Lunch

IMG_3989_2A visit to the cellar door is always a good idea, time permitting, prior to lunch at a winery. Today we have fifteen minutes to spare and it’s not too busy. The cellar door at Trentham Estate Winery overlooks the Murray River on the NSW side. It’s a novelty for me that our impending lunch is in NSW and dinner is in Victoria.

We have an opportunity to try several whites and reds on a list that must run into twenty wines, most available for tasting. They are all reasonably priced and I really should have grabbed a bottle of the nebbiolo which I quite enjoyed. However, we run out of time and need to be next door for lunch, leaving a very comfortable pot belly fire in our wake.

The restaurant is nice and warm, and the welcome matches. Naturally, the focus of the tables is towards the gorgeous view of the Murray and lawns outside. The room itself is simple, with wooden furnishings and natural tones. Deciding between the diverse types of dishes is proving a challenge. Catherine narrows her choices down to two and I can’t decide so I offer to order the Murray cod and she can get her other choice of the gnocchi.
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My decision proves a winner but unfortunately her decision does not. The gnocchi is served with green beans, asparagus, broccolini and green peas. The gnocchi itself is finished off in the pan before being covered by the green sauce which, except for the peas, is all combined. There is not a great deal to like about this dish with quite doughy gnocchi, and a sauce that is not well seasoned, tasting of little given the spectacular fresh offerings in this region.

The Murray cod is on the other hand fantastic. Fresh and just cooked through, the flesh of the fish is beautiful. When combined with an expertly prepared lemon beurre blanc, boulangere potatoes, and fresh asparagus, every mouthful is divine.
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When our waitperson comes to clear our dishes and notices Catherine’s half eaten gnocchi she politely enquires whether there is any issue. As nicely as possible she describes the lack of flavour and doughy gnocchi and our waitperson instantly, against our protests, takes the dish off the bill. A terrifically fast response to customer feedback.

We decide to stick on and try the millefeuille which is a good choice. The sheets of pastry are nice and crisp and in between is plenty of sweet cream with a tasty raspberry sauce. It is not incredible but it is very nice.

Trentham Estate Winery is a pleasant place to enjoy a relaxing lunch overlooking the Murray. While the food let us down today, the response and the service in general was excellent.

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Port Phillip Estate – Red Hill, Victoria – Monday 8 June 2015 – Lunch

Barbara pumpkin angolotti, lemon, Amaretto, sage

Barbara pumpkin angolotti, lemon, Amaretto, sage

The first time I walked into Port Phillip Estate I was stunned with the modern architecture. It stood out from the rest of the more rustic, traditional, Red Hill wineries at the time. While it created a trend in the area, it is still unique in its scale.

That day was not the day for fine dining but inspired me to one day return and enjoy the incredible view over lunch. Years have passed, but several positive reviews illustrated the dining room had settled into a high performance groove. I was eager to say the least to have a try for myself.

Pan seared scallops, lentil salad, parsnip puree, bitter leaves

Pan seared scallops, lentil salad, parsnip puree, bitter leaves

It is not cheap to eat in the dining room, especially on a public holiday, with a prix fixe for two or three courses. Thankfully there are many exciting options, and the descriptions of the food have the potential to live up to the expense. Catherine and I both order the Kooyong flagship Chardonnay (the Farrago) which has only just begun to be offered on the menu by the glass. It is an elegant, high quality expression of a local vineyard that shares the cellar door with Port Phillip.

Aylesbury duck, organic beets, almond, quince, Earl Grey

Aylesbury duck, organic beets, almond, quince, Earl Grey

It is time to start eating and I have done an extremely gentlemanly gesture and ordered one of the two dishes that Catherine couldn’t choose between. The “Barbara pumpkin angolotti” consists of one large piece of al dente filled pasta, simple but delicious pumpkin, with balance to the creaminess provided by lemon, and a nice infusion from sage. Catherine was torn but ordered the pan seared scallops. Large, beautifully seared scallops, slightly translucent, are served with a lovely parsnip puree. The lentil salad seems an unusual accompaniment but it works alongside the bitter leaves which are a more regular compliment.

After a terrific start, our main courses took it up a notch. My Aylesbury duck, the breast in particular, was incredibly well cooked. The beetroot sauce combining with the duck like a classic should, and the quince providing the slight sweetness that is so well married to game. Presentation stood out, but the taste was an escalation.

Catherine was taken by the sound of the ricotta salata gnocchi. Another delightfully presented meal, with the puree of Chanteney carrots a highlight on the plate in more ways than one. Everything worked nicely together with the gnocchi. There is a great deal of thought that has gone into each of the elements.

Ricotta salata gnocchi, roasted Chantenay, barley, nettle vinaigrette

Ricotta salata gnocchi, roasted Chantenay, barley, nettle vinaigrette

Normally after such tremendous savoury courses you could forgive the desserts not being as intricate or well thought through. Forgiveness was not needed as I tasted my first mouthful of the roasted Red Hill figs, rice pudding infused with more fruit, and chunks of honeycomb. Huge on flavour and while rich, not a dessert that overcame me by the end with too much creaminess.

Caramelised honey panna cotta, poached estate quince, roast almond ice cream

Caramelised honey panna cotta, poached estate quince, roast almond ice cream

While enjoyable, the caramelised honey panna cotta probably missed the mark a touch on the star component which was presented in a flat circular dish, rather than in the usual pyramid form. It was set, but you couldn’t get the usual creamy mouthfeel from each taste. However, the poached quince was amazing, meaning a reconfiguration could be all that is needed to take the dish to the level we found in the rest of the menu.

Roasted Red Hill figs, aromatic rice, honeycomb

Roasted Red Hill figs, aromatic rice, honeycomb

Expectations are sometimes the most difficult element to meet. The food had well and truly exceeded my expectations even though Port Phillip Estate is recognised as one of the best on the Mornington Peninsula. The clean lines of the restaurant and amazing architecture naturally lead you to believe the service is going to be equally classy. It has many fine dining features, even including a small stool being brought out for Catherine’s bag.

While the maitre’d did an excellent job, and on more than one occasion pinch-hit for the floorstaff, it was not enough to overlook some of the oversights. When your waitperson has said more than twice “thank you for your patience” normally it is regarding the food. In this case the kitchen was keeping up with a three-quarter full restaurant on a public holiday, but our waitperson was not keeping up with the simple things. As an example, while we waited quite some time to order dessert, eventually Catherine had finished her sparking water, and the rest of which was in a bottle a little while away to keep the table uncluttered. We sat there for several minutes waiting for her to notice that we needed to order and/or have our water topped up but to little avail. The same happened with the bill and we actually took it up to the maitre’d on our exit. At these times when we patiently waited, our waitperson was on the floor clearing plates, or getting drinks for the larger tables; just not ours.

Service faults aside, we had an excellent meal. The food was fantastic and the view impeccable in this dining room that was purpose built for the surrounds. The experience here is exceptional whether for a day trip or while holidaying on the Peninsula.

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