787 Esplanade Mornington, Victoria 393103 5975 2055
|Opening hours||Tuesday-Sunday noon-3pm, 6pm-10pm|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
Mornington is not quite the city and not quite not the country but it definitely feels like a coastal holiday destination when you're sitting on the terrace at Counting House, wine at hand, fancy fish and chips on the way, gazing at an expanse of grassy foreshore dotted with palms and pines.
The restaurant is in an attractive timber building, built as a bank in 1912. Now it's about as close as Mornington gets to fine dining, done up in breezy French provincial style. The fit-out is charming and comfortable, incorporating historical features like the original bank vault, now a wine cellar.
Counting House opened three years ago with an ambitious menu but it's evolved into more of a bistro as co-owner and chef Gavin Ong discovered that local diners usually want simpler dishes. These days, he's flat out pan-frying barramundi fillets to serve with fries and aioli and grilling porterhouse for the excellent steak sandwich (it's on a "lunch classics" menu and comes in a ciabatta-style roll with tomato chutney and garlicky baked spuds).
Some dinner dishes are a little dressed up: scallops pair with black pudding, roasted duck breast is served with spicy sausage and pickled peach, and grilled lamb backstrap comes with quinoa salad and preserved-lemon-and-mint oil.
The only vegetarian main course was also among the best dishes I tried. This riff on ratatouille features battered and fried zucchini flowers, baby capsicum stuffed with mougrabieh (oversized couscous) and long eggplant piled with rice pilaf. It's a creative, pretty and approachable summer dish.
Less pleasing was a lacklustre Nicoise salad with badly cleaned, mushy prawns (instead of the traditional tuna) and barely there vinaigrette dressing. The whole dish looked and tasted rushed.
I ate here on a hot summer's afternoon, the kind of day that a coastal restaurant would hope to find itself busy. A long wait for food suggested the kitchen wasn't quite keeping up. The waiting staff were cheerful and attentive – at least until our food-less table seemed to cause them to evaporate in embarrassment.
Ah well, they were chirpy when they reappeared and the food was mostly worth the wait. I'm enough of an optimist that I'd return to Counting House to sit on that lovely terrace for a spritz, a steak sanger and a side order of endless summer.