1208 Mornington-Flinders Road Main Ridge, VIC 3928
MERDE. WE'RE LATE FOR lunch at La Petanque, thanks to a freeway clogged like a post-Christmas artery all the way from Frankston. Summer on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria's answer to the Hamptons, requires serious forward planning. My advice? Adopt a war footing six months out. Befriend Lindsay Fox and hitch a ride in his chopper. Above all, get in early at the restaurants. "Booked out" is their favourite phrase. Take our number in case there's a cancellation? Nup, too busy. Derisive snort.
We were lucky to get into La Petanque. After seven years in business, this Main Ridge restaurant won its first Age Good Food Guide hat last year, a heart-warming example of substance trumping style. With no winery affiliation but a heavy wine influence, it's like an indie band on the major-label summer touring circuit.
As is the case with all the best peninsula restaurants, it's hidden away in the hinterland. No Architectural Digest glamour-puss, the wooden two-storey building has an Amish plainness that doesn't so much make a virtue of simplicity as live resignedly with it. But the garden is pretty, the sandy petanque piste inviting to youngsters armed with pine cones. Tables are set with solid, middle-tier hardware, although they could certainly do better than the dish of pre-cracked pepper - surely people don't still steal grinders?
La Petanque doesn't scream serious food experience. But sit down and take the temperature of the place and things start to surprise. The wine list is a mighty collection of the region and an overview of France as deep as it is broad. Owner Philippe Marquet is clearly a serious wine nut. It's lunchtime and we're driving (merde!), but the selection by the glass proves a dazzling compensation.
French food doesn't have a natural association with an Australian summer, and chef Stuart Deller - Australian, oui, but a tragic Francophile thanks to his classical training - presents a menu that's more "French" by virtue of cooking techniques immersed in the region's produce.
A poached marron tail, still translucent and almost jelly-like, has a lilting vanilla note; two scallops riding shotgun have been treated with the same degree of tenderness. They come with a foamy bisque with that big flavour payoff from extracting every bit of flavour from the heads and shells. Rounding out the dish is a "succotash" of cannellini beans, corn kernels and a husky note of kaiserfleisch, although you can forget the Depression-era connotations - this will add an extra $8 impost to the carte price of two courses for $69 or three for $88. Still good value.
The wine list is a mighty collection of the region and an overview of France.
If you're not fixated on seafood, the steak tartare is a surefire way to approach beef in summer. The roughly chopped organic meat of rosy tenderness is nicely presented on one of their bold dark-glazed plates surrounded by pommes gaufrettes - lattice crisps don't sound quite as posh - and topped by a quail yolk and a thicket of microherbs. It's easy eating with a nostalgic slant.
A main of duck breast is roasted to pink medium-rare. Duck, for me, has inescapable winter connotations, but the kitchen tilts towards the season thanks to a smooth, light beetroot puree with a subtle note of coriander seed and thyme, garlic and raspberry vinegar to break down any latent earthiness. There are baby beets and radishes with vinegar sharpness and a honeyed-onion jam, and saucing is kept light and bright and seasonally appropriate with a star anise flavoured jus with a note of blackcurrant and the juice from the compote cherries that dot the plate.
It's a surprise, therefore, that a watery thyme jus lets down the lamb. Poured at the table, it doesn't pack much punch and is underseasoned to boot. The crisp puck of the animal's confit neck and pale pink loin is otherwise just fine, with fondant potato, carrots and baby onion.
Desserts are probably the weakest link. They're enjoyable but don't offer the same level of detail - possibly the mark of a restaurant with fewer resources thanothers in the neighbourhood. There's an enormous, shallow creme brulee, flecked with vanilla and thinly toffeed, the otherhalf of an odd two-receptacle bowl holding segments of grapefruit. I preferred the buttery simplicity of the classic cherry clafoutis given a little kick with pistachio and kirsch ice-cream.
Lunch is a leisurely affair, although I saw other patrons with timetables to keep sent off much faster with a Gallic flourish. But really, it serves them right for planning ahead. For once, time was on our side.