26 April, 2010

Simone's of Bright

98 Gavan St, Bright; (03) 5755 2266

As a resident of inner Melbourne, I can never complain of lack of choice for exciting places to eat. I reserve some envy, however, for those further afield who may have fewer choices but have one outstanding local. Those who call Bright home not only have ready access to some of Victoria's finest scenery, but also one of its most applauded restaurants, Simone's.

Chef Patrizia Simone has worked the stove for over 20 years, and has been awarded the title of 'Legend of the MelbourneFood and Wine Festival'. The high country is known for its defiant Italian influences, and Simone's reclaims a little part of the country for her home region of Umbria.

Our whole trip to the high country was scheduled around dinner at Simone's, so I was pretty excited by the time we finished a tasting paddle at Bright Brewery and headed across the road to the humble brick cottage housing the restaurant. The welcome was pleasant, and each table holds beautiful crockery.
The menu offered all the promise I'd hoped for, and we started suitablly carnivorously with an antipasto of cured meats:Ours to enjoy were slices of wagyu bresaola, chestnut-fed pork salumi and proscuitto.

My main sang off the page - coniglio con erbe, patate e strozzapreti, and appeared appropriately enticing on the plate:The discs are of Yackandandah rabbit, infused with fennel and wrapped in porcetta, with a braised leg sharing the bed of potato puree.

It was a meal so expertly executed, that it wasn't until after I'd finished it that I realised how worthwhile it had been, and I confess to scoffing it down without taking the time to appreciate subtler flavours and the quality of ingredients.

The desserts at Simone's tip their hat to traditional Italian produce as much, if not more than, the mains.

Here we have budino con prugne e gelato: Flourless blood plum pudding with plum ice cream. Simply perfect for a chilly autumn night.

My dessert didn't quite top off the night as effectively, mainly due to personal taste and a slight disconnect between description and delivery.

Its Italian name is acqua minerale di sambuco, cioccolate bianca, fichi.Its translated description is honey-roasted figs, roasted pine-nut shortbread and ice cream, white chocolate coconut cappucino.

I wasn't expecting foam (OK, it says cappucino, but I was thinking more of frothed chocolate in a cup!). And, while I adore and could live off fig paste, the fruit itself isn't a texture that works for me. So, the fruit part of this dessert - while probably heaven to most fine diners - didn't offer much enjoyment, but that ice cream made up for it. Delicious.

Wining and dining: Gapsted and Gracebrook

Gapsted Wines: 3897 Great Alpine Rd, Gapsted (nr Myrtleford); 03 5751 1992
Gracebrook: 4446 Wangaratta-Whitfield Rd, King Valley; (03) 5729 3562

Wineries are blessed destinations. Grapes have the happy fortune to grow well in valleys made fertile by ancient rivers and soils, factors that tend to lend themselves to particularly picturesque landscapes. The soil that determines the terroir is usually also handy for raising other delectable crops, and where's there are crops, there's likely to be cattle, and hence smallgoods.

Fortunately, many a savvy winery owner has put all the factors together to offer passers-by a lot more than free samples of their vinous product. There are few better ways to dine than al fresco, overlooking the orderly rows of vines, with a choice of produce sourced from places you're likely to pass on your way to that evening's accommodation.

Even better if you can sneak in a tasting after you've ordered, to make the most informed choice of all as to what will accompany your meal.

Gapsted Wines, near Myrtleford, has to be one of the most pleasing examples of this combination of outlook, food and wine. Its vines roll down to the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail, and it would be a surly cyclist who wouldn't point their handlebars up the drive to see what's on offer.

What they'll find is a stunning view that takes in Gapsted's crop; rolling, livestock-dotted fields, and the impressive ruggedness of Mt Buffalo. The day we ensconced ourselves upon the deck was near perfect: unseasonably warm weather gave us sun to bask in while we took in the range of autumn colours on display.

Gapsted has one of the longest tasting lists I've ever seen. The vineyard operates as the Victorian Alps Winery, and sells almost half a dozen brands, including Gapsted, Tobacco Road and Coldstone. Their list of produced wines runs to two pages, and all are available to sample. Despite the breadth on offer, cellar door staff are knowledgable about the wines, and affable to boot. The wines are also available by the glass with lunch, with many of the entry-level brands for $5 a glass.

The menu is succinct, but a celebration of the surrounding area. Three local tasting platters are available, focusing on antipasto, cheese, a daily selection of dips, or trout three ways.

The first of these presents as an admirable array:Eggplant, sun-drieds, roast caps, zucchini, mushroom, a whole artichoke heart, salami, mortadella and the briefest sprinkling of some Milawa cheese, all served with bread and crostini.

Main dishes ran to the heartier end of the scale, such as this deliciously seared pork cutlet, served on a bed of ratatouille.Pick a sunny day, and settle in to sup wine - by the glass or sample - and nibble.

Earlier in the trip we'd passed through the King Valley, later than the usual lunch serving time, and hence with a limited number of places still plating up food. One of those places was Gracebook Vineyard, a couple of ks north of Whitfield. They keep the kitchen open throughout the afternoon and, again, offer a bucolic outlook and a range of well-priced bottles to sample.

Our food choices suited the mood perfectly. Firstly, a homemade gnocchi with mushroom sauce. The pliant gnocchi clung to the rich, but not overpowering sauce, touched with a hint of truffle. The rocket provided the perfect bite to foil the earthy flavours of potato and mushroom.

The perfectly roasted pumpkin salad hosted Milawa goats cheese from up the road and a ubiquitous use of local nut, in this case walnut. The dressing - presumably with a local oil - was divine.

Also recommended: Boyntons (or Feathertop Wines) near Porepunkah. In autumn, their cellar door affords a breathtaking view of many-hued trees, backlit by the hills. Visitors can dine a la carte, or select from their deli range and picnic on the lawn.

Range at Myrtleford

258 Great Alpine Rd, Myrtleford; 03 5752 2885

When you're hot, you're hot. When Michael Ryan opened Range at Myrtleford, the plaudits rolled in and the restaurant filled a fairly broad gap - geographically speaking - in fine dining in the northeast (Simone's at Bright notwithstanding). Range earned two hats and Country Restaurant of the Year in 2008 thanks to Ryan's 'regional contemporary' food.

Range was, and is, attached to Motel on Alpine, one of Myrtleford's more modern accommodation options. Ryan and the motel have parted ways, with Ryan taking his chef's tools - and a lot of Range's cred - to Beechworth to open Provenance. Sean Ford has picked up the tongs at Range. Like Ryan, Ford brings interstate experience and a long resume to the restaurant.

Locals seem sceptical about the change, using the past tense when describing the restaurant as good. I query that assessment for two reasons: 1) Myrtleford is a town un-awash with food not branded as 'bistro'; and 2) having eaten there Ford seems a dab hand at handling the local produce.

Where Range is difficult is in its kitout. Maybe it worked better when it was pumping every night with long-distance culinary fans. The night we were there, the carpeted room - more reminiscent of an art gallery than a dining room - housed but two other couples and two lone diners, most of whom were guests at the motel.

It's a small space, but one that was worked efficiently by a lone member of waitstaff. The menu undoubtedly focuses on regional produce, which is what you're after at an expensive regional restaurant.

Having said that about regional dishes, our starter was baby calamari, served with a white bean, olive and parsley salad, plus a 'spicy' coriander dressing that presented more like pesto.It wasn't picked for its local-ness, but rather the fact that it was something we could share! The squid was lightly charred and nicely pliant, and offered a good amount as a starter. The accompanying salad was suitably light and fresh.

Other more local entree options included Milawa quail with polenta, and fried zucchini flowers from Merriang.

That afternoon we'd driven down to Lake Buffalo, past a turnoff to the delightfully named Nug Nug. The village showed up on one of the main options: braised Nug Nug kid with local forest mushrooms, baby carrots and kipflers.Chef Ford slow cooks two cuts of meat - loin and flank. I'm used to goat on the bone in a curry, but this was quite different. The meat was juicily sinewy, melting like a three-hour lamb roast. The starchy veg nestled alongside the kid made it a wintry dish, sure, and it could have used something a bit lighter to mix it up - a spark of green or crunch on the plate (supplied, as it happened, by a side order of steamed beans with almonds).

SG went for a rather more exotically described main: greta saltbush lamb (Greta being a town about 50km west of Myrtleford), with eggplant caviar, white bean puree, parmesan crisps, fresh peas and rosti potato. Believe it or not, it was all there on the plate! The lamb was lovely - a generous serve of eight moist, pink slices, just crisped on the outside. The accompanying jus worked a treat with the house bread - an unbelievably aromatic bake served with creamed butter. The whole dish was perhaps a bit busy - the eggplant caviar (slow-cooked strips of the veg) probably an obvious element to forego.

Earlier in the night we'd seen the waitress take a shot of gin out to the kitchen, which led me to think that this was my kind of chef! The dessert menu revealed the reason, however: a savarin with gin and rhubarb syrup. My gin requirements had been quenched with a gin and tonic to start the evening, and I was keen to continue my indulgence in the region's autumnal affair with the nut, hence selecting the chestnut souffle with dark chocolate parfait.
I'm not a regular souffle eater, so can't rate this one against many others. It's innards crumbled satisfactorily, but it was also scaldingly hot. (Our dessert order had anteceded the departure of the penultimate guests by at least 20 minutes.) The parfait was excellent though - firmish on the outside and gooey inside, and made with the quality dark chocolate that you just know is good for you.

The parfait was drizzled with Beechworth honey, an establishment we'd visited that day. Their hometown store offers help-yourself samples of dozens of honeys, a worthwhile way to ascertain the different between a leatherwood and a messmate (our fave).

SG thought he was taking the more straightforward dessert option, with a simple order for the lemon meringue tart with vanilla anglaise. But here it was the execution that was more exotic.
The tart was deconstructed into biscuity rounds topped with a puckering lemon curd, flanking a somewhat charred rectangle of meringue. It luckily tasted less scorched than it looked! (But again, perhaps the chef was too keen to finish up the last service of the night?)

A particularly commendable aspect of dining at Range was their commitment to not only local food produce, but wine as well. Most of the wines available by the glass were from vineyards very close by, and more often than not for around $8. The menu also featured a dish of the month, with suggested local wines by the glass or bottle to go with it.

Both our wine selections introduced us to new vineyards to seek out: the 2008 Annapurna pinot gris, and a 2008 pinot noir from Bogong Estate (who exclusively produce pinots).

Glancing over Michael Ryan's menu at Provenance, I can see that Range may have lost some sexiness with his departure. Ford has continued the commitment to local produce, however, and he's handling it with aplomb.

Tea Rooms at Yarck

6585 Maroondah Hwy, Yarck; (03) 5773 4233

Pietro Porcu has crafted his own style of Sardinian food at Da Noi in South Yarra for over ten years. It's a style that truly celebrates the seasonal, cooking what's good there and then and eschewing the need for a rigid menu. It's more what you might expect in a hailed trattoria in an obscure Italian town; all it lacked was the isolation.

Since opening his second restaurant at Yarck (open on weekends only), Porcu has added that missing piece. Recreating the subsistence lifestyle of his childhood with his own farm near the speck-on-the-map town, Porcu has created a gorgeous outpost of authentic, field-to-plate eating.

As at Da Noi, guests are welcome to discuss their likes and dislikes with the waitstaff and have the chef prepare an impromptu meal accordingly. The chef's menu is $78, priced around four courses, although the final cost can be adjusted if you end up eating more or less. A group dining near us were overwhelmed when their main course arrived: an enormous, overflowing bowl of crab claws, beautifully presented with the terracotta shells contrasting the traditional blue, yellow and white pattern of the plate.

A brief blackboard menu of daily specials is also available: antipasti, two entrees, two primi, three secondi and a handful of desserts. The waitstaff were happy to talk through the menu in some detail: these are dedicated people on the floor, who understand Porcu's love of food and his ability to share something special with each diner.

We managed to get the best of both worlds, ordering two unmissable entrees, and one a la carte and one special main - more on that later.

Before ordering, the visit started with some fried and battered broccolini - impressively fresh after obviously just kissing the oil. Between ordering and receiving entrees, we nibbled on bread and some simple marinated capsicum.
SG's entree of rolletto di coniglio was equally tantalising to us both: rolled rabbit, stuffed with mince and speared with beans, served with a rich, syrupy drizzle of balsamic reduction. My entree was the crespelle: crepes with fontina, ham and broccoli, served straight from the oven. Broccoli can be a steamed disaster or, as in this case, it can be a sparky foil to richer companions such as the cured ham and gooey cheese.

For main, SG chose the cervo con polenta. Venison, like veal, is a meat I avoid, since it's so hard to vouch for the care and upbringing of the animal. In a restaurant like this, however, I feel differently. The venison was marinated overnight in a red wine sauce, and came to the table oozing over a polenta mush, studded with carrots so soft and sweet they tasted like poached pears.

My main is something it will take me a long time to forget. I had gone for the lasagnetta, but the waitress advised it was a bit similar to the crespelle and suggested a dish not on the menu: chestnut pasta, with a duck and orange ragu. The pasta noodles were astounding. They hardly dominated the dish, but the richer flavour and slightly grittier texture were so noticeable. And the ragu was just a dream, a wondrous blend of flavours that, while rich, demanded I make as much room as possible and just keep eating.

I was, not surprisingly, sated after those two courses, but SG ploughed on with a serve of pineapple sorbet, perfectly sweet and expertly creamed, topped with a couple of curves of candied fruit. I pushed the boat out with a serve of Mirto, a Sardinian myrtle liquor that is bang on for a mix of sweet and herby, but at $15 a glass not something I'll chuck back just anywhere.
But this was absolutely that kind of meal - where you revel in the food, the atmosphere of the place, the knowledge and skill of the chef and his staff, and the pure enjoyment of a well-prepared meal.

Also recommended near Yarck: Mansfield Traveller's Lodge. Mansfield is about 40 mins from Yarck and this motel offers fantastic value - big rooms at under $100, with tips for local places to visit, a communal kitchen and DVDs to borrow - and exceptional service (eg jump-starts and recommendations for mechanics when your car breaks down!)

05 April, 2010

Human frailty: 'Blindness' and 'The Children of Men'

A dystopia is a powerful world for an author to evoke. It is made all the more potent when created through a single permutation in normality, revealing how fragile our hold on security has been made by 'progress'. P.D. James' Children of Men and Jose Saramago's Blindness both explore a world wracked by a single failing that - slowly or quickly - is the undoing of mankind.

(Coincidentally, both books were made into movies within two years of each other, both starring Julianne Moore.)

In P.D. James' The Children of Men, humankind has lost the ability to reproduce. Rather than presenting a post-apocalytpic world, James' is mid-apocalyptic: humanity is dying, not suddenly through a cataclysmic attack, but patiently, as the population inexorably ages.

Hers is a fascinating concept. Just what would we do if the human race became infertile? What would be the first industries and services to suffer? The social implications are so forseeable and worthy of scrutiny that the outcomes of such an event could be explored systematically, in a future-doco format.

James instead creates a protagonist, Theo Farron, upon whom to hinge the plot. His centrality to events past - his childhood with Britain's ruler - and present - a splinter group's choice to ask him to help them - is unfeasible and stalls the book to an extent. James concerns herself solely with the situation in England (and a small portion of that country at that). The book offers no explanation for the infertility, and the fact that births simply stopped in 1995 is conceptually problematic.

Those born in 1995 - all 25 years old at the time of the book's setting - are known as Omegas, and bear an uncanny resemblance to today's Gen Ys. They are described as 'indulged ... arrogant ... without animation or energy'. The similarity can only be inadvertent since the book was written in 1992. It's an intriguing device, imbuing this unprecedented consciousness into the last-born, but again relies on society functioning a little more neatly and uniformly than it does.

The protagonist Theo is a professor at Oxford, and cousin to the Warden of England, a benevolent dictator who rules the country assisted by a council of four. James' choice of governance warrants further consideration. What would happen to our governments if our race were not to see out the century? The cynical thought occurs that we're already ruled like a nation with noone under 25 and 90% of the population over 50. But would parliament be disbanded? Would one person emerge to take on responsibility for keeping order, keeping the electricity running, finding something for the schoolteachers, childcare workers and children's retailers to do?

Theo's world is a strange one, straddling two genres: it is neither a futuristic rendering from sci-fi, nor a barely recognisable, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Many scenes feature derelict buildings and nature overrunning man-made structures - with fewer people this world has finally solved the housing crisis - alongside normality as Theo drives to work and shop.

The story was significantly altered for the movie verson (Theo Farron is no Clive Owen!), but the filmed version provoked a similar ambivalence of criticism, with many respecting the premise but questioning the execution.

Blindess explores a different calamity: an epidemic of non-seeing, which rapidly reduces the world to barbarism and criminality. Again, it's a singular change, yet its ramifications are feasibly encompassing and horrific. The blindess is contagious, and the first couple of hundred people afflicted are quarantined. Very quickly, though, they must fend entirely for themselves. Just as quickly, their quarantine station descends into the most basic of barbarism.

The descent is both quick and total. Saramago spares no attention to detail of the excrement, the despair, the violence, and the lust, of both the requited and forced kind. The book featured scenes I found difficult to read; from discussions with others who've read it I think most will find something hard to get through, but what it is depends on your personal sensitivity.

What I found difficult was the notion that we would necessarily descend to rape and pillage, if 200 random humans were left alone in desparate circumstances. The quarantine station Saramago creates serves as a microcosm; when the sequestered get out, they realise the quarantine was a fruitless ordeal, since the plague of blindness has spread universally. The group in quarantine, therefore, serve Saramago's literary licence, as they must display what is worst - and in the case of one or two characters - what is best in us.

Saramago's writing style is peculiar - he believes in long paragraphs, with no visual distinction between dialogue and prose. I haven't read other books of his to know if this is his standard, but in this book it's effective in disorienting the reader, and bringing them closer to an empathy with these characters who have also lost their orientation.

It's astonishing to consider how fundamentally that one change would alter existence. How would we eat if noone could distinguish between the packets? Who would manage our utilities if noone could see the dials? How would you find your way home if you were out when the blindness struck? Saramago describes the blindness as a white world, reinforcing the point that everything we have built is still there - and illuminated, if the people could only see.