Altair is comfortably decorated with earth tones and timbers. Photo: Eddie Jim
Lesson for the week: it does not pay to underestimate the outer suburbs. Jeff Kennett discovered something similar when he lost the 1999 election, although his mistake related to ignoring rural Victoria. Restaurant reviewers, conversely, are rather enamoured of the regional hero but struggle with those pesky bits of metropolitan Melbourne beyond the tramlines.
Once upon a time there were solid reasons for the prejudice. I think I can get away with saying that without attracting any more Twitter haters. But we've reached a point where it's no longer necessary to give special consideration or a scoring fillip simply for the bravery of opening outside of Zone 1.
Our case study for the affirmative is known as Altair, a restaurant opened six months ago by a hospitality couple stepping up to have a go for themselves. For all the celebrity chefs hogging the limelight, these people are the industry's lifeblood.
Tortellini with celeriac, basil and confit tomatoes. Photo: Eddie Jim
You won't have heard of Kelvin and Michelle Shaw, not unless you're a diehard follower of Elwood's Sails on the Bay, where he headed the kitchen and she waited on the tables. But that's beside the point. They've taken their not inconsiderable experience and gone inland to a spot with views of gum trees and parrots, the bright blur of Lycra-clad cyclists and the slightly unsettling need for a fire plan.
It's a smart move - a little short of the Yarra Valley's winery restaurants yet still far enough for day-trippers. Their roomy eyrie, perched above Warrandyte's main road on a lazy curve of the Yarra, is comfortably decorated with the earth tones and timbers that bring the outside in, enlivened with splashes of citrus-green on the cushions and water glasses. There's linen covering the tables at night that comes off for lunch service. And weekend breakfast. These guys work hard.
It's the little things that reveal the hands-on nature of the operation. The kind of service that shows ownership pride; being asked if you want butter or organic olive oil with the bread; the bowl of spicy roasted almonds and pepitas that arrive unbidden.
The menu is broadly contemporary, thoughtfully composed, and reveals the chef has a handle on indigenous ingredients. There's lemon myrtle and wild pepperberry in the dry spices crusting the sashimi tuna, for instance, which help beef it up to match the chewy strips of veal jerky - think of a really aged bresaola (air-dried beef), then add more chew - with a citrusy squid ink emulsion, braised mustard seeds and little pops of finger lime doing their bit to bridge the gap. The venison terrine is less inventive but sustains the hum of satisfaction. There's a nice offaly whack to the farmhouse-style slab of lunchtime goodness, with slices of blood plum, tiny dark grapes and a smear of rum-and-raisin paste. A classic, done well.
The pick of the mains is a pasta dish that shucks off any rustic connotations and shoots for elegance. Fat tortellini pouches stuffed with a smooth celeriac and basil filling; a technicolour splash of confit heirloom tomatoes that taste how tomatoes used to taste; a perfect basil-sweet consomme with the heady nose of parmesan, and little value-adding extras including fried sage leaves.
The pork loin, on the other hand, is simply pork loin roasted nicely, subordinate to a support cast that includes sticky little bitter-sour bush apples with braised lentils, and a convincing bit of house-made blood pudding.
The only thing that didn't really grab me was the dessert, one of those gussied-up granolas that despite some nice touches (poached peach, Earl Grey sorbet, soft meringue) is still too much like - yes, granola - to really sink into. Silly me for ordering it. But you can trust me on the wine list, which is a smart mix of ''names'' and boutiques with a generous selection by the glass. They let you BYO wine, too.
By way of postscript, lunch at Altair was followed by excitement at spying an early David Bromley painting in the nearby bric-a-brac shop. Bargain? Erm, no. Like I said, it doesn't pay to underestimate the outer 'burbs. People there know when they have a little gem on their hands.
The best bit An accomplished all-rounder
The worst bit Pre-cracked pepper
Go-to dish Celeriac and herb tortellini, $32
- 03 9844 5548
- Cuisine - Contemporary
- Prices - Typical entree $18; main $36; dessert $13
- Features - Licensed, BYO, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Accepts bookings, Wheelchair access
- Chef(s) - Kelvin Shaw
- Owners - Kelvin and Michelle Shaw
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Wed-Fri, 11.30am-10pm; Sat-Sun, 8.30am-10pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki