Dandenong Ranges, Victoria: Eating Out

By Michael Harden
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Good food, good wine and good company

Good food, good wine and good company

As with most aspects of food and wine in the Dandenong Ranges, the area’s restaurant scene is inextricably – and not particularly accurately - linked to Devonshire tea. There is no doubt that there are plenty of tea rooms in the Ranges, alongside pie shops and places like the mock Bavarian Cuckoo restaurant (which has been offering a smorgasbord since the 1950’s), but there is a wider selection of dining experiences nestled in the hills if you are willing to look beyond the clichés.

If you’re here to experience the clichés, however, not just any old tea room will do. For the full Dandenong Ranges Devonshire Tea Experience, you need to set the compass for Sassafras the home of Miss Marple’s Tea Rooms for the last twenty years. This quaint Agatha Christie themed, mock English shop with its floral tablecloths and curtains not only has the Dandenong Ranges Devonshire atmosphere down pat but it does the scone, jam and cream business very well, particularly if you’re into quantity as well as quality.

Owner Jennifer Cook says that the large, square, ‘shearer’s’ scones are baked in big batches and crowded together in the oven so they tend to rise higher than a conventional scone. The jumbo scones are served with home made raspberry jam (made from local berries) a generous amount of cream and large pots of tea. Size is a point of pride at Miss Marple’s so if you choose not to have the big scones, you can have a big sundae, big toasted sandwich or an enormous Ploughman’s Lunch.

Pie shops are also integral to the traditional Dandenong food experience so if you are continuing that theme, head for Olinda and the award-winning Pie In The Sky. Owner/chef Dennis Sideras’ original opened Pie In The Sky as a traditional tea room and decided to include home made pies in the mix to give his place a point of difference amongst all the other sandwich and quiche places. The pies took off, particularly after he began winning gold medals in the nationwide Great Aussie Pie competition and now account for 95% of Dennis’ trade.

There are about fifteen pies on the Pie In The Sky menu but Dennis says his traditional Aussie meat pie with good quality beef (coarsely ground “so you can’t cheat with what is in the pie like you can with finely ground mince”) and served with tomato sauce is probably his best seller. His gourmet range – pork pies, chicken korma pies, spinach fetta and rice pies – all walk out the door in good numbers as well and Dennis has recently begun ordering special boxes for the increasing number of tourists from Malaysia and Singapore who have heard of his pie making prowess and are ordering up big and taking the pies back home on the plane as edible Aussie souvenirs.

To complete the Dandenong tourist/food experience you probably need to include a visit to SkyHigh at Mount Dandenong. Worth the trip for the absolutely spectacular views over Melbourne alone, the facilities at SkyHigh have had a recent refurbishment and now include a reasonable bistro and café with lots of windows taking advantage of the gob-smacking vista. Go up there at night, order a beer or a glass of wine and watch Melbourne shimmer like a jewel.

If you want to see what Dandenong Ranges restaurants are capable of beyond the traditional, LadyHawke in Mount Dandenong is an excellent place to start. This wonderful little restaurant, housed in a homey 1920’s building surrounded by lush trees, is a scone free zone, the menu being more about Middle Eastern flavours and excellent local produce than the more Anglo-centric norm in these parts.

Owners Troy Payne and Fleur O’Hare are young and enthusiastic refugees from Melbourne who spent a couple of years getting their restaurant together, painting and renovating it themselves while they held down jobs in the city. The result is a quirky and colourful place with a welcoming atmosphere that is a cross between nanna’s lounge room and a groovy inner city café. There is no lace to be seen anywhere. Fleur says that their aim was to create a completely relaxed feel to the place so that people would be as comfortable coming on their own as they would in a group. Seeing people curled up with a coffee and the newspaper in the reading room or joining a group of friends for a meal near the fireplace, you can see that LadyHawke is working pretty much as they wanted it to.

The secret of LadyHawke’s success (apart from Fleur’s smile) is Troy’s terrific food. He may have worked with and been influenced by chefs like Jacques Reymond, Andrew Blake and, most recently, Greg Malouf but having his own kitchen, his own kitchen garden and his own ideas have allowed him to give the food a unique spin. He says he is as much influenced by his grandmother as he is by anybody else and has Fleur’s 82-year-old grandmother working in LadyHawke’s small kitchen with him.

Troy bakes his own bread, gets tomatoes and herbs from his garden and sources as much local produce as he can locally. There’s not a lot of produce grown in the Dandenongs, he says” but when you do find things you leap at them”. The result is a place that is unique in the area and one that should be included on the itinerary of any food lover interested in another side of the Ranges.

There are other places in the Dandenongs that are also pushing a modern, produce driven barrow. Wild Oak in Olinda, owned by another young and enthusiastic chef, Ben Higgs sources much of its produce from the Ranges and the Yarra Valley and has a big Yarra Valley focus on its wine list. Also in Olinda is Credo, a bright and modern Italian joint that is all about clean lines and modern Italian flavours.

It may not have the biggest restaurant scene in the state, but the Dandenong Ranges has a broader dining culture than the Devonshire tea cliché would have you believe. Dig beyond the surface and the gems soon make themselves apparent.

© Michael Harden 2006

First printed in Food and Wine Lovers’ Guide to Melbourne and Surrounds (2006)

Regions

  • Yarra Valley, Dandenongs and the Ranges (VIC)

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