26 April, 2010

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.

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