The dining room exudes timeless charm. Photo: Eddie Jim
The Healesville Hotel's pumpkin crop was good this year. Jerusalem artichokes and kale, too, which bob up a few times across the menu. It's not a criticism. While a certain amount of overlap is the pay-off of seasonality, it's a moot point when a kitchen has so much swing in its step.
On the back of my recent visit, I reckon the Healesville Hotel has reclaimed the heat of its heyday, when it was still a novelty to resurrect an old country boozer along city lines. Those were the days when the term ''gastropub'' really meant something. A front bar with charm, a dining room with style, all set to the compass point of regional and rigorously seasonal. Throw in some sweet old-school pub accommodation upstairs, and hey presto, critic(al) mass.
The Healesville's reputation has remained consistently solid. Sometimes it's been more solid than others. What we're witnessing here is the renaissance of a pub that put the industry on notice 12 years ago, when the idea of old boozers reborn as the embodiment of newfangled ideals really took root.
Winter warmer: Pork belly with roast loin and apple aioli is a favourite. Photo: Eddie Jim
In the interim, the owners have expanded into a specialist butchery and cafe-provedore next door, as well as getting a serious organic garden going to supply the hotel and all that sails beneath the Yarra Valley Harvest banner.
The dining room now goes by the name of Quince (Friday to Sunday - other times it runs the same menu as the front bar), but to me and its many fans it will always simply be the Healesville. Reclaiming the high ground comes thanks to a fresh stable of faces, including Camm Whiteoak, last seen working his maitre d' magic at Gingerboy, Embrasse and Attica. It's no coincidence that under his charge there's a consistency of service among all the floor staff, from lowest to highest. It's informed yet informal, bang on the sweet spot that most country places can only dream about.
There's a great sommelier, too. Ewan Proctor, formerly of Bistro Guillaume, has a gem-studded global list to play with, but he really seems to enjoy the opportunity of sticking within the Yarra Valley 'hood.
The locally produced St Ronan's apple cider, all delicate bead with just a hint of creaminess, proves a sophisticated sidekick to an entree of pancetta-wrapped rabbit loin that ticks all the seasonal boxes - pine mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes, fried sage leaves and roasted chestnuts, anchored in pumpkin mash with a beurre noisette lapping around the edges. It's food that brings winter into the handsome old dining room, with its open fire and lazily twirling fans, its deep wicker chairs and dark timber trim.
The chef is Clinton Camilleri, who paid his dues at Eleonore's and Kyneton's Royal George. His food suits the place. It's not too shouty: technique in the background, flavour up front, and brave enough to leave things alone. His cured Yarra Valley salmon is the model of restraint: a jewel-coloured jumble of raw fennel and thinly sliced beetroot, mandarin segments and radishes, some lightly pickled cucumber adding a salty note and horseradish cream some rev.
The prices are noteworthy. Two courses, $55; three courses, $70. It's great value for the generosity on display. Plates don't pay too much heed to portion control. A main of duck - sliced, golden-skinned roasted breast, a cube of the confit leg, and a liltingly spiced leg-meat sausage - has its full potential realised with fat segments of poached Bartlett pear and a parsnip puree, the whole thing punctuated with toasted sunflower seeds, chestnuts and young radishes with the leaves still attached.
Another winter-fruit no-brainer is the sharp apple aioli with the pork two ways - pink-sweet roasted loin that's been rolled in things like fennel pollen and caraway, and a neat puck of the slow-roasted belly. The little nubs of fried chorizo with raw green apple and fennel are an unpredictable and totally successful addition.
And at the end, a retro-trendy steamed pudding shows why pastry chefs are busy delving into the archives. A fat dome of aromatic gingerbread-spiced pud, a caramel-poached pear, and tonka-bean ice-cream. I like that there's nothing about it that's overtly sweet, apart from a drizzle of Pedro Ximenez.
Time has been good to the Healesville. It has the kind of looks that never go out of style, but in an industry focused on the new, it's good to see an old stager putting its foot back on the accelerator. To every thing there is a season. The Healesville's is now.
Twitter: @LarissaDubecki or firstname.lastname@example.org
Wine list Lengthy, annotated list of Old and New World wines
We drank St Ronan's apple cider methode traditionelle (Healesville, Vic) $44Service Switched on and unstuffy
The best bit Real regional dining
The worst bit More bread, please
Go-to dish Pork belly, roast loin, apple aioli
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.
- Cuisine - Contemporary
- Prices - Two courses, $55; three courses, $70; five-course tasting menu, $80
- Features - Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating, Gluten-free options, Family friendly
- Chef(s) - Clinton Camilleri
- Owners - Michael Kennedy, Kylie Balharrie
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Diners Club, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Daily, noon-3pm; 6-9pm (Quince dining menu Friday to Sunday; other times the same menu as the front bar)
- Author - Larissa Dubecki