Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Estelle by Scott Pickett, Northcote

Inside ESP

At Estelle by Scott Pickett (ESP) in Northcote – the sophisticated sibling of Estelle Bistro next door (formerly Estelle) – the whole is more than the sum of its parts. That’s not to say the parts aren’t impressive: there’s a light fixture by Christopher Boots reminiscent of the illuminative trail created by sparklers in photos; wine glass storage that doubles as art cut into concrete wall tiles and a calligraphy ‘E’ engraved into custom Laguiole knives and hand-stitched on charcoal napkins.

With black marble, black steel and luxurious black banquets, this is the kind of place where money wants to be seen and people come to be spoilt. But at $130 a head for polished service and seven courses of some of Melbourne’s most refined food, it’s bloody good value. Along with architects Hirsch Bedner Associates, Pickett designed the space around his dream kitchen, which is as open as they come and overflowing with a copper pot collection worth more than my life savings.

There’s space for 50 diners and while groups can sit on locally designed chairs at locally designed tables, couples can bask in the drama of the kitchen at the raised bar seating. Up here there’s plenty of room for elbows, a great vantage point for people watching and the opportunity to giggle at Pickett the potty-mouth.

It’s also wide enough to ensure that clumsy gestures don’t result in wasted alcohol as you progress through wine-matched menu (booze assembled by sommelier James Dossan at $90 for ‘Premier’ or $120 for ‘Grand’). Speaking of staff, customers are in especially good hands with front-of-house guru Stuart Neil. Always friendly and constantly calm under pressure, those with a keen eye might notice he’s one of few Pickett doesn’t raise his voice at in the heat of the kitchen.

Back in front of the flame, Pickett, who also co-owns Saint Crispin in Collingwood with Joe Grbac, is joined by head chef Josh Pelham, and together they squeeze every inch of flavour from the kind of produce we’ve come to expect from Melbourne restaurants: seasonal, local and exemplary of the best. You’ll kick things off with house bread (pray for the option that stirs memories of Bakers Delight cheese and bacon rolls, but are oh-so-much better) as a log of butter is rolled onto a cross section of a tree standing in as crockery.

What Pickett refers to as “snacks” comes next, an assortment of bites that should be packaged up like potato chips and offered in bulk. There might be paper-thin pillows filled with potato soufflé and crowned with cod roe, a jerusalem artichoke wafer with crisp saltbush leaves or a parmesan finger biscuit with lemon myrtle (albeit barely detectable). If you visit soon, you’ll get all three.

The main affair ranges from produce at it’s finest (supple kingfish with ribbons of calamari, ink and burnt carrot) to downright comfort food (pink White Rocks veal with deep-fried mustard leaf and al dente hand-rolled macaroni) to a little bit of luxury (faultless risoni with generous black truffle shavings and spanner crab with cauliflower and a creamy vadouvan smear).

A dessert featuring a velvety chocolate disk with chocolate ‘soil’, milk ice cream, mint-infused violet leaves and deep purple dots of violet gel is a highlight, while impossibly light lemon aspen bomboloni and a rich raspberry vinegar ganache truffle complete the degustation. If I’m being picky, the vinegar component could have been dialed up a few notches, but who am I to judge the judge of Channel 9’s Hotplate?

Estelle by Scott Pickett opened to the public on July 17. I attended the media preview a couple of night earlier, but with a chef of Scott Pickett’s caliber at the helm of his dream restaurant, I’d be surprised if anyone walked out of ESP disappointed.

245 High Street, Northcote 
(03) 9489 4609 
Tuesday to Saturday (dinner) 
Friday (lunch)

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

48 Hours on the Mornington Peninsula

Known for it’s curvy coastal roads, family-friendly beaches and boast-worthy produce and wineries, the Mornington Peninsula is a top holiday destination for many Melburnians. Only and hour and fifteen minutes drive from the city, it’s ideal for a last minute getaway, too. I was invited to explore the coast courtesy of Aquabelle Apartments in Rye. The timing could not have been better – it was the last weekend before we picked up our new puppy, and so the trip was dubbed “The Puppymoon”.

Nestled between Rosebud and Blairgowrie, Rye is a quaint little town compared to Sorrento, its flashy, more popular neighbour. There’s a friendly mix of holidaying families and coastal retirees strolling along the main beachfront and frequenting local cafes. Life operates at a slower pace here, and when we visited recently, we discovered that Rye is the perfect base to take a culinary cruise around the coast.  


I though we were really clever leaving on a Friday afternoon at 4pm, but apparently everyone had the same idea to ‘avoid the traffic’. It took way longer than it should have to get there – next time I plan to be driving by no later tan 3pm. When we finally arrived at Aquabelle Apartment 1 we were exhausted after some road rage and the stressful working week had compounded. Last time I stayed in Rye my accommodation was what one might call ‘endearing’, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Aquabelle resembled something you’re likely to see on a Pinterest board titled ‘home inspo’.

A narrow stairwell leads to an open kitchen and living space with a vintage industrial feel: warm timbers, brown leather couches, Eames chairs and a cowhide rug to soften the polished concrete floors. The balcony looks over the road towards the ocean with outdoor furniture and the kind of pot-planted succulents you want to pinch. There are two bedrooms, one with two king singles and an en suite with a king bed. It must have been comfortable, because we fell asleep that night before we could finish the last episode in the season of The Wire. Having two bathrooms – including a bath – was also a bonus.


There wasn’t much time to relax before dinner, so we dragged ourselves off the couch and drove 10 minutes up the road to Sorrento (the flashy neighbour). We were early so getting into Cakes & Ale, which opened in 2014, wasn’t a problem. The focus on seasonal ingredients is obvious before you enter: perhaps an A-frame chalkboard advertising pine mushrooms or persimmons lined up along the windowsill. Raw wooden furniture, plants and paint-stripped walls balance cool and welcoming at this all-day diner and wine bar, but we were there to eat.

We started with giant, fleshy Spencer Gulf king prawns sautéed in garlic and herb butter and an incredibly decadent dish of baked blue cheese and whipped ricotta with slices of toast for dipping. The Inzimino Di Ceci, an Italian dish of chickpeas, winter greens and dutch carrots was lifted by dried lemon and paprika, but ultimately reminded me of something I’d make at home that needed a little more salt. Thankfully the baked gnocchi Romana – huge, pan-fried pillows of semolina with buttery pine mushrooms and melted chunks of squacquerone cheese (an incredibly soft cow’s milk variety typical of Romagna), more than made up for it. Unfortunately dessert didn’t finish our first Mornington Peninsula dinner on a sweet note, the chocolate fondant lacking its lava-like middle and dry, despite the addition of thyme and star anise-spiced pear and mascarpone. Despite a few misses, it’s important to note that we both agreed we’d most likely eat there before anywhere else in Sorrento.

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After a solid night’s rest we were rudely awakened by our alarm at 7am. We skipped a sleep in to be at the Peninsula Hot Springs as it opened at 7.30am – completely achievable given it’s only an eight-minute drive from Aquabelle Apartments. The only thing we forgot was our flip-flops, but luckily we could buy them there. We changed quickly and raced up the path, past the steam rolling off the water of the lower bathing springs to the hilltop pool at the peak of the property. We had the entire, 360-degree view of the region to ourselves for about 10 minutes before other guests crashed our private spa party. We made the most of the other pools, seeing how long we could stay in the hottest, gritting our teeth over the reflexology walk and sweating it out in the steam room and sauna. After building up an appetite relaxing, it was time for breakfast.


Back in Rye we stopped in at Captain Picknics, a local corner cafe that was already crammed with people when we arrived. There’s a nautical theme inside, with glass buoys hanging from a wooden ladder and a ship’s steering wheel fastened to the wall. I ordered a toasted salmon bagel that hit the spot, but when a couple of giant burgers went past with a knife jammed in their tops, I immediately regretted not ordering one for breakfast. Next door to Captain Picknics is The Picknic Basket, a store attached to the cafe that sells takeaway coffee, food and lots of local produce. It’s a great option if you want to make the most of the picnic tables along the beachfront or have a night in and cook at Aquabelle Apartments.

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There wasn’t long between breakfast and lunch, especially because we chose to take the scenic route along the waterfront from Rye to Red Hill. The drive is spectacular, as are the winery surrounds of Red Hill Estate. We whet our palates with a wine tasting before lunch and bought some interesting looking, local banana jam (which turned out to be delicious). From there we were shown to our seats by the vast windows, overlooking the vines and ocean.

From Monday to Saturday you can have one course at Max’s Restaurant for $50, two for $70 or three for $80. I started with a dainty prawn and spring onion dumpling resting on a chunk of kakuni pork (a square of pork braised Japanese-style). The waiter poured an umami-rich tonkatsu broth over the top, drowning strings of enoki mushroom and kimchi in the process. Also ordered from the entrees was a slow-cooked truffle egg, its yolk thick and sticky from the cooking process. It coated the colourful canvas of mustard greens, kohlrabi, radish, broccoli and red cabbage puree upon which it sat. Both of us ate seared tuna for our main, served with piquant, pickled mussels, cress and crunchy ponzu-compressed daikon radish. The flavours were wonderful together, despite some overzealous salting.

There was no room for dessert (that’s not a sentence I write often). Instead we chatted outside with Danielle, sister of Max from Max’s Restaurant. She who runs MP Experience tours and we were kicking ourselves that we were a little too early for her truffle tour. Stuffed from lunch, we drove back to Aquabelle without any stops. I’m not ashamed to admit that we did absolutely nothing that afternoon. Actually, that’s not one hundred per cent true: one of the Foxtel channels was playing back-to-back episodes of The Sopranos, so we spent the afternoon digesting with James Gandolfini.

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By the time dinner came around, I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to make it. I had booked Terre at Dromana Estate Winery, a restaurant 25 minutes away in Tuerong with a kitchen team worth driving for (they’ve spent time at The Royal Mail Hotel, Gill’s Diner and Circa). It was quite calming cruising along in the dark, so by the time we parked the car we practically floated up the manicured path to the white homestead. We sat by the open fire and decided as soon as we saw the menu that we’d be eating three courses for $71.

Simple descriptions such as “wild mushroom cannelloni, cauliflower, duck ham, heirloom beetroot” turned out to be clever combinations of flavours and textures; the earthy, creaminess of the mushrooms inside the al dente tube mellowing out beets both cooked and pickled. Duck confit leg fell off the bone, the outer layer caramelised to a sticky crust, sweet and jammy with cumquat. Fish resembled a rock pool on the plate, while a steamed honey pudding come dessert featured the tang of tamarillo, the smoothness of white chocolate and the spice of cinnamon poached pears. It was an extremely elegant dinner and my favourite meal during our stay. Pigeonholing it as ‘modern European’ – not to mention these sub-par photos – doesn’t do the cooking justice. 

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Already full to bursting from the previous night, there was still eating to be done. We had around 12 hours to reset our stomaches before hitting up Freaky Tiki in Rye for breakfast. It’s a cute little caf with wholesome food and a Byron Bay feel. Operated by a local couple, there’s raw fare if that’s what you’re into, but on this particular morning I was suffering from a food hangover and ordered a chicken burger. My dining buddy went the healthy route: a giant plate of three mixed salads and a couple of poached eggs.

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Following a final relax sipping tea on our Aquabelle balcony, we checked out and headed inland to Main Ridge. Our first stop was Johnny Ripe, upon Danielle’s recommendation (MP Experience). This gorgeous farm gate and bakery is set on an old apple orchard with a huge deck overlooking the grounds. There’s a separate takeaway section where you can buy cakes, apple pies, tarts and more to take home, as well as a cafe with a stone fireplace that feels like a log cabin. We bought half a vegetable tart and a salad and shared it on the deck while kids ran around in the background. It’s all about good eating here in a picturesque setting – the perfect Sunday outing on the Mornington Peninsula.

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Walking distance from Johnny Ripe is Main Ridge Dairy, a well-known goat’s cheese factory and cafe. You can immerse yourself in their world with tours and cheese-making workshops, but we opted for a cup of tea and a tasting platter at the cafe. My favourite was the Cilia, an oozy, white-rind cheese that matures over nine weeks and has hints of mushroom. The kind lady even gave us a little sample of goat’s milk to wash it down.

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After we’d had our fill of goat’s cheese we remained in Main Ridge and drove 4km to what I consider the find of the weekend: 2 Macs Farms. Also recommended by Danielle, the property is a farm gate and cooking school owned by Mary McCarthy and Bill McNamara – the two Macs. We wondered into the property where we saw the sweetest little honesty shed I’ve ever seen selling pumpkins, raw honey, free-range eggs, relish, homemade sweets, granola and more. I couldn’t resist taking a few things home for dinner. We also ran into Mary, who chatted with us about the classes and the new long lunch series she has started. I plan on returning, perhaps even to stay at Harvest House to make the most of the kitchen veggie garden and hen house. You know those places that just give you a good feeling about life? 2 Macs Farms is one of them.


We managed to squeeze in eight, edible stops during a two-day stay on the Mornington Peninsula, but there is so much more to explore. Thankfully it’s close to the city so you can return again and again to fill in the gaps. On this occasion our accommodation at Aquabelle Apartments was perfectly positioned to take advantage of everything the area has to offer. As you can see, I’m of the opinion that eating your way around the Mornington Peninsula is the best way to experience the area. If you’re visiting for longer than a couple of days, don’t hesitate to get in touch – I have plenty of recommendations.

Share your favourite spot on the Mornington Peninsula by commenting below!

Click on the above map of the Mornington Peninsula to enlarge.