Great eating on the Mornington Peninsula

By Michael Harden
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Salix restaurant boasts all the Mornington Peninsula has to offer including a fabulous view over the vineyard

Salix restaurant boasts all the Mornington Peninsula has to offer including a fabulous view over the vineyard

Merricks General Store cellar door, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Heronswood, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Dining al fresco on local produce on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Ploughman's lunch at Red Hill Brewery, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

One of the clearest indications that the Mornington Peninsula is being colonised by food and wine obsessed Melburnians is the number of excellent restaurants now dotted around the place. The Peninsula has always had good restaurants but only in small, sporadic numbers because there hasn’t been the population – or the day-trippers – to support them outside of the summer months. In recent years, an influx of sea changers and people realising it is easy to pop down to the Peninsula for lunch has seen dining out become one of the Mornington Peninsula’s real strengths. There are arguably more good restaurants taking advantage of the increased crowds and ever improving local wine and food here than in any other region of Victoria.

Don’t expect to get good food everywhere you go, however. Like most beachside places in Australia, the coasts of both Westernport and Port Phillip Bay have surprisingly few good places to eat, opting for a casual even slapdash approach that often pays no attention to all the great produce growing just kilometres away both on the land and in the sea. There are exceptions of course. Places like Stringers Stores and the Green Olive Gourmet, both in Sorrento, offer above average café fare and wave the flag for local producers and winemakers on the shelves of their produce sections. In Merricks, the historic General Store, recently given a beautiful, award-winning makeover, highlights some local produce on its shelves and its menu. But the biggest exception, and one of the most interesting places to eat on the Mornington Peninsula, is Dromana’s Heronswood Café.

Made from rammed earth taken from a local quarry and with a roof thatched with local reeds, the Heronswood Café has a heart-on-its-sleeve commitment to the locally produced. Set in the beautiful grounds of the historic Heronswood house, headquarters of the environmentally aware gardening group The Digger’s Club, the café is part of a larger effort to remind people of the diversity and deliciousness of the home grown, the rare-breed, the non mass-produced.

Many of the café’s ingredients are sourced from the gardens, both the delightful ‘picking’ garden of herbs, beans, podded peas and so on that surround the café’s outside tables, and the extensive fruit and vegetable plantings across the rest of the estate. Part of the joy of eating here is being introduced to things like rare breed tomatoes and heirloom strawberries that come in an amazing variety of tastes, shades and shapes. During tomato season, for example, there can be as many as thirty different types of tomatoes growing in the gardens.

Recently refurbished by renowned chef George Biron, Heronswood Cafe now features an open kitchen and a menu of small tastes that you combine to make a meal. The menu changes every day depending on what comes in from the garden and will always feature something heirloom, be it a white strawberry or a sweet chocolate capsicum, a Easter egg radish or a tigerella tomato. It is not only and interesting and educative place to dine, the food is delicious, the wine local and the gardens, with their amazing views over Port Phillip Bay, a perfect place for walking off lunch.

It is still too early to identify a particular Mornington Peninsula style but move inland a bit and there are a few things that all the best restaurants here have in common - a love of local produce, a desire to support local industry, a fanatical devotion to the seasonal and a relaxed approach that doesn’t stint on attention to detail in cooking or service.

Many of the best restaurants are attached to wineries though there are some that choose to do it alone. Bittern Cottage has been open for twenty-five years and has become something of a Mornington Peninsula institution with its European flavours and philosophy. Owner/chefs Noel and Jenny Burrows are committed to sourcing as many of their ingredients locally as they can and the menu name checks local producers so you will know, for example, where the beef you are eating was grazing not so long ago.

Jill’s at Moorooduc Estate is another place that sources many of its ingredients close to home. Housed in a striking rammed earth building with beautiful vineyard views, Jill’s is the sort of place where the eggs, vegetables and herbs on the menu come from owner/chef Jill McIntyre’s coop and gardens and many of the other ingredients are sourced from local producers. Jill’s bouillabaisse, for example, includes fish from local fisherman Tim Mirabella and mussels from Michael Harris’ Flinders Shellfish. The approach to the food is much like Jill’s husband Richard’s approach to making the impressive Moorooduc Estate wines – a skilled, subtle and deceptively simple reflection of the region.

Red Hill, with its mix of artisan producers, small-scale wineries, food stores and gorgeous scenery has become one of the best places to eat on the Peninsula. There is a good mix of places that will suit most moods – whether you want something casual in the sun in summer or a more hearty meal inside by the fire watching the rain fall on bare vines.

The Red Hill Brewery not only makes and serves excellent beer but has simple excellent food sourced from local producers that is perfect for sharing in the sun over a pint or two.

At Vines of Red Hill, with its Tuscan inspired building set amongst bush and vines, the food again leans towards the local with seriously good cooking that pays close attention to the season. Poffs’, the Long Table and winery restaurant pioneer Max’s at Red Hill Estate similarly provide uniquely local experiences with food, wine, views or a lucky combination of all three.

A short drive from Red Hill, in Merricks North, you can find one of the Mornington Peninsula’s best winery restaurants, Salix at Willow Creek. Housed in a lovely timber building with a wall of glass that overlooks the Willow Creek vineyard, Salix not only has a comfortable stylish dining room but has recently been taken over by sea changing Melbourne chef Bernard McCarthy.

The father of two young daughters, McCarthy decided that the hours of working in a city restaurant were robbing him of the chance to see his girls grow up. Bernard’s wife Rachel, who runs the restaurant with her husband, was also happy to move to the Mornington Peninsula because it is where her mother lives and so they were spending a lot of time in the area as it was. When Salix became available, it seemed like the perfect combination – a restaurant with a good reputation, at a winery with a rapidly increasing profile, in a beautiful location just down the road from Rachel’s mum.

Bernard already had a reputation as a chef fanatical about good produce and so coming to the Mornington Peninsula where he can have a “real connection with the growers” is like a dream come true.

“The producers live just around the corner and they come to your back door with their cherries or eggs or quinces and you actually get to know them,” he says. “I wouldn’t use them if the produce wasn’t good but a lot of the things you can get around here are world class.”

The menu at Salix is thick with local produce. During mushroom season, for example, you might find a twice-baked mushroom soufflé with local chestnuts and Red Hill goat’s cheese and Mornington Peninsula Prime Beef fillet will usually make the list.

Like many Mornington Peninsula sea changers, Bernard McCarthy is wondering why he didn’t make the move sooner and has found the transition to shorter hours, fresh air and more time with his girls easy. What has been good for him has also been a bonus for the local restaurant scene.

There may always be cheap and cheerful pizza and pasta joints and raucous, quantity-over-quality fish restaurants on the Mornington Peninsula and that is probably as it should be. But as more and more food and wine fanatics join the holiday crowds and begin searching out unique local culinary experiences, the easier it is becoming to find a locally produced feed that is cooked with a degree of skill. The current wave of Mornington Peninsula restaurants is a good indication of an area that is finally waking up to its true potential.

© Michael Harden 2006

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

Regions

  • Melbourne Surrounds (VIC)
  • Mornington Peninsula (VIC)

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