Go-to dish: Beef short rib, burnt onion skordilia, pine mushrooms. Photo: Eddie Jim
The M11 is fabulous and user friendly ("just follow the European SUVs", my co-driver says helpfully), but the smartphone map gets all confused on the way to a Dromana winery, mistaking the C784 for the B110 and thereby losing half of the 20 minutes potentially saved by the new Portsea freeway.
This could be categorised by the annoying Twitter hashtag as "a first-world problem". The Mornington Peninsula is a hotbed of first-world problems. The views are great but the service can be lousy and the minibuses of lads and ladettes are the curse of the cellar door.
Looking on the bright side, however, the winery restaurants – which history too often deemed a case of style over substance – have been given a mighty competitive push.
Paringa Estate's dining room has multimillion dollar views of serried vines and rolling hills. Photo: Eddie Jim
Paringa Estate, where we lay our scene, has a reputation as a winemakers' and wine-lovers' hangout. A photomontage of owner Lindsay McCall up to his elbows in crushed grapes, while contemplating another trophy for the mantel, graces a dining room that can't compete with the regional glamazons but nonetheless makes a fine place to stop for Sunday lunch. A sturdy mix of starched white linen and beige tiled floor, pitched timber ceiling and wood fire, it's got multimillion dollar views of serried vines and rolling hills, and internal windows overlooking the vats where the magic happens.
The arrival of chef Julian Hills 18 months ago has given this Red Hill winery restaurant another shove in the right direction. Hills comes via, in descending order, the Court House Hotel, Middle Brighton Baths and Blush Foodroom, and the experience of that trio in their respective heydays adds up to the current moment at Paringa.
His modern food with a French accent doesn't throw anything screamingly new into the Peninsula mix, but he has an elegant way with beautiful produce that puts it right among the area's top echelon of restaurants.
He's ditched the wide-brimmed white plates, a legal requirement of upscale pub dining, for arty black numbers. This is the kind of food you want to photograph before getting stuck into. A fat, translucent marron tail topped with melting strips of lardo – a world's best practice surf'n'turf – is napped by a vanilla parsnip puree and a subtly acidic citrus sabayon, and balances a potato wafer all perky with fresh horseradish, fennel pollen and orange zest.
It's a loving homage to top-notch seafood (from WA, of course, although other parts of the menu convincingly play the regional card). The other entree, three fat pillows of housemade tortellini, is the only dish that's too conceptual for comfort, relying too much on the chestnut and cauliflower cream that spills from the slightly thick pasta parcels. An "earthy crumble" – quinoa, hazelnut, buckwheat and more – has good flavour and an unpleasant, sand-like texture, while slices of poached summer truffle have only an echo of their winter siblings' thick, humid funk.
But feed me the beef short ribs any day of the week. Four fat fingers of intercostal meat, marinated in fennel, coriander and cumin, are cooked sous vide and flashed in the pan to order; the resulting texture is somewhere between prime steak and corned beef. Pickled whole baby pine mushrooms, a thin line of burnt onion skordalia and a sauce of earthy sweetness make a dish that's clean, bright and not too heavy, which is a kindness to diners facing a post-prandial drive back to Melbourne. Same goes for the duck, which pillages an able support crew of cherries, pistachio – a thickish nutty paste – and wilted leaves of radicchio. It's a simple formula but the balance is just right and the super-sticky sauce – there's star anise in there; cardamom and mint, too – doesn't swamp its beauty.
It says plenty that desserts, two ridiculously overplayed standards, finish the meal on a high note. A pumpkin creme brulee balances a simple duo of nutmeg wafer and a spoon-suckingly good shortbread ice-cream that's further evidence for my theory most sweet things taste better in ice-cream form. And a yoghurt panna cotta plays sour against a lemon curd's sweet, with apple and sorrel granita, pistachio croutons and poached rhubarb making it pretty much unimprovable.
A great meal. The trio of young women working the floor also gets the service right, and the kitchen nicely judges the pacing for a roomful of diners, some with a cellar door skinful. Well played. Pull up a chair at Paringa, leave your first-world problems at home.
The best bit A new Peninsula highlight
The worst bit The drive back to Melbourne
Go-to dish Beef short rib, burnt onion skordalia, pine mushrooms, $39
Wine list Estate wines including back-vintages, plus a short list of premium Europeans
We drank Paringa Estate Viognier (Red Hill, Victoria) $9/$38
Vegetarian One entree, one main
Dietary GF available
Twitter: @LarissaDubecki or email@example.com
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.
- 03 5931 0136
- Cuisine - Contemporary
- Prices - Typical entree $20; main $38, dessert $14
- Features - Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating, Gluten-free options, Licensed
- Chef(s) - Julian Hills
- Owners - Lindsay McCall
- Cards accepted - Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Wed-Sun, noon-3pm; Fri-Sat, 6pm-9pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki