15 May 2011

Stanley deserves a laurel


Ollie: "Every cloud has a silver lining."
Stan: "That's right. Any bird can build a nest but it isn't everyone that can lay an egg."
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy console a devious Lola.

I love a road trip. They usually turn up something random or a spontaneous revelation. And then there are the locals who eye you with suspicion as they park a heaving plate of God-knows-what in front of you. Love it.

Some years ago I found that Mr Sticki's country raised nephews grew up refusing to eat vegetables. I was shocked. They grew up in a part of country Victoria known for fruit and vegetable production, so there were plenty of opportunities to get into good food.

Then, in their teens, they were employed by the local supermarket. In order to work on the coveted check outs they found themselves in need of being able to identify all manner of vegetables. But they were bereft of such knowledge.

And the reality is that this is not uncommon in Australian regional towns today. In our most bucolic settings, most kids are not rosy cheeked from the benefits of magnificent fresh local produce. They prefer the tinned, commercially packaged nastiness that appears in many regional pub bistros.

There's a pervading attitude in the country that any packaged or convenience food offering from the city is preferential to rural produce. And yet when we city folk spend a few hours in the car destined for a holiday or day trip, we conversely expect to be rolling in luscious local food wonders, fresh from the producers.

So when I think of casual eating in the countryside, I hope for local regional produce, artisan goods, friendly service and simple convivial surrounds.

But that's my own particular fantasy bush escape.

We found it exists in France, but rarely does a regional Australian venue deliver such things. I'm not talking about über fine dining and experimental dishes that borrow from molecular cuisine. I know those experiences exist at the far end of a four hour drive.

What I hope for seems to crop up more often in the city. In places like South Melbourne's The Rising Sun Hotel where Ron O'Bryan is working his magic with farmer direct produce. There are country exceptions of course. The Stanley Pub, just outside Beechworth, is one of them.

My interest in this little pub was piqued by Brewer's Wife's post on her dining experience there. She mentioned lunch at The Stanley Pub showing an image of a pie on a fashionably long plate alongside a stretched limousine smear of mashed potato. The pie humorously appeared to have pretentions to fine dining. But rather than laugh, her verdict was that it was delicious and the venue pleasing.

So on a visit to Beechworth we made a detour to the tiny, historic hotel and found it to be cutely crouching under pretty wisteria vines beside a generous beer garden, function space and accommodation. As we pulled up, two scruffy middle aged men were muttering darkly, smoking cigarettes on the doorstep. Not knowing what to make of that, I hoped for the best.

We entered a brightly lit front bar featuring some wonderful artisan joinery and a well used dart board. To the right, the softly lit bistro emerged as a converted outdoor space, equipped with a JetMaster fireplace and in one corner, a wood fired oven.

Traditional French bistro style bare tables and starched linen napkins were set for about thirty seats. We were the last to arrive of eleven diners there that night. Service was smoothly taken care of by the owner and pedigreed Sommelier, Shane Harris.

It later emerged that Shane, his wife Annemarie and chef Shauna Stockwell were veterans of Sydney high-end dining venues, with notches in their various hospitable belts that include Testsuya's, MG Garage and Pier, then later in this region north east Victorian area with Michael Ryan, pre Provenance, at Range.

As we settled in I breathed a deep sigh of relief. The menu selection was admirably small, concise and dotted with local produce; likewise, the wine list. Respect.

The dishes had classical leanings. I found it tough to make a decision on which to choose. An entree of rabbit and duck rillettes with peach chutney, beckoned. Oysters shucked to order with a Japanese dressing or zucchini flowers wistfully called to me.

Main courses featured the safe option of steak frites, but also skate, gnocchi and poussin. A side salad of figs, rocket, local walnuts and blue cheese sounded like an ideal lunch dish, the potatoes sounded heavenly too, but we chose the comforting seasonal vegetable dish of wilted spinach with kaiserfleisch.

Four mains arrived at the table beside us. Two languished unattended, a large portion of poussin and the steak - two pieces topped with butter and a mound of green beans - classically served with obvious care.

A diner scuttled to the public bar beckoning to the two men who had been standing on the doorstep when we arrived. "You know your meals are here?" She said. Affirmative was the dismissive response. She returned to their table to eat.

After a time the men ambled into the bistro carrying the bowl of nuts they had been eating at the bar. "That looks a bit fancy", said one of the men with a heavy European accent.

"What gives?" Said Mr Sticki with a bemused smirk, "Looks as though those men have been dragged here against their will." They did indeed. And as soon as the mains were consumed, they returned to the bar with their bowl of nuts and fresh beers. The women continued on, shared a dessert and left without the men.

It was the sight of those main courses that made me realize three courses would be impossible for me to ingest. And I wanted the Tarte Tatin for dessert. So taking a mouthful of the delicious local Beechworth cider, I resolved to have two entrees and a glass of local Sangiovese

On the oval plate dotted with saucy whorls sat a snowy bavarois of local chevre that was earthy in flavour and silky in the mouth. The small mound of citrus and baby beets sat atop a disc of red jelly. The piquancy of that mound challenged the goaty creaminess and at times rendered it into a sheepish complement.

Mr Sticki's choice was a special of seared scallops. Cooked as they should be, still slightly translucent inside, four discs of roe-less scallop dressed in micro-herbs, squatted atop a bed of hoummus like four pretty girls on a picnic rug. A mirepoix of tomato with vaguely Middle Eastern flavours transformed the clean, sweetness of the scallops and rug of hummous into a flying carpet ride to another part of the world.

Next, my carpaccio of peppered venison was a floral textile. Like the circle skirt of a rockabilly sweetheart it was a sweep of burgundy checked with blue cheese cream and scattered with a web of petals. The skirt had a seared edge and a sticky mouth feel that launched a rich combination of tastes. Deeply satisfying and a good follow up to the bavarois the blue cheese brought an unexpectedly positive dimension to a flavor profile accented with sharp, hot pepper.

Three young women - local friends of Tim Witherow the Sous Chef - were being gently and capably guided through dining and wine choices by Shane. A big night out for a birthday, choices were made with careful consideration that they were about to embark on something truly special. I felt inspired by their anticipation and enthusiasm. Not a scrap of pretension entered their dialogue, such refreshing behaviour in the face of their city counterparts.

I gazed across the table at my beloved. Delicately chewing bones, Mr Sticki contemplated his serve of poussin with intensity. He seemed carried away by the moment. Golden pieces of bird lolled in the shallows of a thickened, clear braising liquor. A flotsam of herbs drifted from the sauce to embrace baby leeks, potatoes and shallots. It all looked so simple, but once I tried some for myself I too was plunged headlong into a pool of richness. This was a dish that stroked your hair and tucked you into bed with its nurturing gentleness.

After a rest, we moved on to dessert. Shane introduced us to a taste of the wonderful local biodynamic Pennyweight Gold. A lush sticky fortified of ripe white grapes, fortified with brandy spirit, and aged for several years in old oak hogs head barrels. It was created by one of the famous Rutherglen Morris clan, who have been producing excellent fortified wines for 150 years. Stephen Morris started Pennyweight Winery in 1982, producing biodynamic, lower alcohol wines in Beechworth and we stopped by the cellar door the following day.

Shauna's tarte tatin was everything I had hoped for. Made with apples grown mere kilometers from the front door of the pub and plumbing the depth of buttery caramelisation I found it difficult to part with when the time came to swap with Mr Sticki. None the less, the pain perdu (French Toast) was also a marvel. Again featuring a local product – figs poached in muscat with fig ice cream.

The night had me buzzing with the excitement of finding a country venue that lived up to my dream. As we drove down the pitch dark road to our Beechworth accommodation, I was gushing with admiration. I'm all for tree-changers following their passion in a rural setting. And I always hope that their efforts might trickle into the mind-set of the locals and the education of the palates of future generations. Here's to more of that in the future and to less frozen chicken parmigianas shipped from factories in the city to country pubs.

Myrtleford-Stanley Road, Stanley, Victoria, Australia

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By Dani Valent in The Sunday Age M magazine, 15 May 2011
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