“The food here is so tasteless you could eat a meal of it and belch and it wouldn't remind you of anything.”
(American Comedian best known for his starring role on the television situation comedy Sanford and Son. 1922-1991)
What is it about dining in picturesque places? Why do the meals in rustic venues invariably not triumph over the surrounds? In the Melbourne pantheon of super-league chefs, why is it - with the exception of George Biron and Herman Schneider - that consistently good chefs and staff seemingly have no desire to work beyond the city confines? To me it is illogical.
I can't see that their skills might be under-subscribed out of town and successful regional chefs are often well feted. Take Steve Cumper's Vogue Entertaining & Travel award last year for 'Outstanding use of a Regional Product by a Chef' - an acknowledgement of his passion and skill, and for his outstanding efforts while at Peppermint Bay on the Huon Trail in Tasmania. And people flocked to Montalto Winery when Phillipe Mouchel was in residence, meanwhile the winery still trades off on this even though he now has his own venue at Crown.
It would seem that Galloping Gourmets seem willing to travel as far as Dunkeld for fine dining. Healesville is on the gourmet trail too, as is Rutherglen. And in addition to his celebrated Sunnybrae at Birregurra, George Biron's name pops up all over the place from Campaspe House in Mt Macedon, to Diggers Seeds cafe in the Mornington Peninsula and T'Gallant Winery in their sales pitches.
But all too often the majority of venues are a venture of style over substance, with fine buildings and vistas, but pretentious food that lacks flavour. It's like dining in Noosa, where the menus are festooned with laborious descriptions fit to enthuse the sophisticated punter, but which are undermined by the final, mediocre product that ends up on your plate. As I recall, a friend who had parents living there had remarked that one could also describe the locals with the same analogy.
Last November in the Barossa Valley, we had a surprisingly sublime meal at Appellation, on high ground at a Peppers resort, overlooking vine covered vistas. There was no publicity to be seen or heard of, yet at every winery we visited, I asked the same question - where's the best restaurant in the region? Every time the reply came back with a hushed reverence: "Appellation". So we went. They weren't wrong and the restaurant was full. It was definitely world class fine dining in a very fetching and productive part of the countryside. A rare gem indeed.
It was with this experience in mind that a friend who was with us on the Barossa trip took us to Salix at Willow Creek Winery on Mornington Peninsula. Salix is the botanical name for the willow tree, and the environs in autumn are truly beautiful. The buildings interesting in their form and even a gloomy day did not dampen the overall first impressions of the venue.
At Salix the dining room is raised to take advantage of the vista of rising slopes of vineyards and trees. A curved glass wall hugs the space and draws the attention away from the pass to the scenery. The room is awash with white linen and diners sit relaxed, in deep cane chairs. The wine list is limited to the Winery's drops but that's not unusual. The service, although a little halting, was well meaning. The staff coped well with a full service on the day we visited, surprising considering that we were part of a large party, there for a late lunchtime seating.
I had no expectations, I just hoped for something pleasant. I know the friend who organised the lunch must have thoroughly enjoyed it on at least one occasion prior to our visit as they were very enthusiastic. So there is definitely a market for the kind of food served. But our friend's palate is possibly less educated than some.
The menu was short, which I thought was prudent. The use of local produce was flagged - thumbs up. But it did not feature any classic dishes. Instead, like a local fashion house that had plagiarised a season of Gucci exotica 2 years after they originally hit the racks, the menu read like a bunch of dated old frocks. Not so old as to be retro, but notably fashionable in recent history. As I said, it has a market.
Mr Stickyfingers and I have the same taste in food. It's one of the many things that cements our partnership. So we always swap our plates half way through, in order to enjoy twice as much from the menu.
We chose as entrees:
Confit Berkshire pork belly, jerusalem artichoke puree, ginger, fennel and ruby grapefruit...
**take a breath**
...and Pan fried thyme & potato gnocchi, cavolo nero, blue cheese marscapone, sage.
The food was technically proficient, the presentation good, even quite pretty. The pork belly skin was crisp. Sadly the meat was not super tender and was bland - as though they had forgotten to rub the meat with a delicious spicy salt prior to cooking. Along with the tasteless puree which lacked the expected nuttiness, the fennel had been shaved so thin as to make it virtually undetectable to the palate and the grapefruit too was more decorative than purposeful.
The gnocchi was golden and sweet but I couldn't detect the flavours of the herbs for the dominating strips of red onion. The wilted cabbage was oily and the gorgonzola was although delightful, a mere smear, making us wonder if they had run out and just scraped the dregs out for the dish. I needed more, much more.
Seared Yarra Valley Venison fillet, spiced Corella pear, savoy cabbage.
Again technically the execution was fine. The venison was tender and rare, the berries a surprise addition. But the overall taste of the meat and two fruit, was of nothing. The jus was neutral and the core ingredients were not flavoursome. They lacked spice, seasoning or character. OK, I admit that I am spoilt, eating either Hartdale Park or North Eastern venison on a weekly basis, so I know how good venison can be. Dragging my fork around the plate, I felt as glum as a bored toddler and hoped that the other main would be better.
Twice cooked half Bella Farm duck, parsnip puree, chestnut jus.
No luck here. It suffered the same affliction as the other dishes and the meat was dry and stringy. It served to push me down into a gloominess that rolled in like the autumn mist outside.
Charred fig & hazelnut semifreddo, preserved Ellisfield cherry sauce.
Held captive in a spun sugar cage, the figs were yummy as was the sauce, but I wasn't taken by the semifreddo which was super hard, tasteless and left a cloying, fatty coating in the mouth that was not broken by the sauce. I may as well have rubbed Vaseline on my teeth and gums.
Soft centred Belgium chocolate pudding, honeycomb nougat icecream & date sauce.
It's the kind of dessert that you can't refuse when there's a chill in the air, it evokes comfort. But this pud was on the dry side and lacked the expected gushing molten larvae of gooey, rich chocolate from within. The honeycomb icecream tasted slightly burnt - and I had assumed that it was burnt toffee - until I looked at the menu again. The date sauce served to anchor the tuile and made no contribution to the character of the dish.
Yes, style over substance reigns here. For a moment I thought that my Super Bug had returned to rob me of my palate. But in the car on the way home, Mr Stickyfingers explained that he had exactly the same reaction to the dishes. He concurred that we were exceptionally fortunate people, who had enjoyed better food, many times over and even sometimes at home.
I feel that Salix could be so much better. I would love to see Bernard McCarthy offer some simple classic dishes, done well and to stop approximating a turn of the century St.Kilda restaurant. Then, perhaps he should enjoy a tasting trip into town to see what is exciting diners these days, in order to build upon it. That done, the kitchen brigade might attract more attention than the view.
But perhaps, just perhaps, the clientele are not there for the food. And possibly it's the circumstance and the perceived modernity of the venue in a rustic setting that draws them in....oh, and the ability to use their trusty Entertainment Card for a discount meal after a weekend drive out of town?
As I watched the scrubby paddocks of the peninsula whiz past the car window, I wondered whether Chef/Owner Bernard McCarthy had recently lost his palate to a super bug too?
Salix at Willow Creek Vinyard
166 Balnarring Road, Merricks North, Vic. Australia
166 Balnarring Road, Merricks North, Vic. Australia
Phone: +61 3 5989 7448