166 Balnarring Rd Merricks North, VIC 3926
|Opening hours||Sat-Sun noon-3pm; Daily 6pm-9pm|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Accommodation|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 5931 2500|
Throwing money at something doesn't guarantee a good result. Look at London's 2012 Olympics logo. Or Versace. So when you heard about Willow Creek's new luxury hotel, backed by young investor Louis Li, featuring a fine diner Doot Doot Doot (everything about the hotel is themed around a mythical antlered rabbit, the Jackalope – a doot doot doot is apparently the leader of the pack) you possibly wondered if it was going to be a big ball of gaudy excess.
Great news: it's not. Actually, it is. But in a good way. Roll up the drive between gum trees and vines to find the wholesome landscape juxtaposed by cutting-edge design. In the foreground: a sweet brick cottage chuffing smoke into the air. Behind: the dominating wood and steel hotel. As a working winery of 11 hectares, here, finally, is a luxury escape where you can watch toil on tractors from the comfort of an infinity pool.
For those who can't afford the minimum $650-a-night price tag to stay (hot tip: might as well make it $750 for a vineyard-facing room, many of which come with a deep inky bath, an included minibar selection, movies and a proper breakfast) it's worth a diversion for Doot Doot Doot – their contemporary restaurant rising valiantly above the handicap of its name.
Looks are definitely part of the appeal. The hallway is a trippy vortex of neon alchemy symbols. Above deep black booths, an undulating Jan Flook installation of 10,000 globes resembles wine in mid-ferment. Your menu, offering an eight-course degustation ($125) or a mix-it-up party of four ($85 – good value) is equally adhering to trend. But if it's sprinkled liberally – sometimes wildly – with native Australian, Japanese and seasonal ingredients, it is for the most part unchallenging to eat.
A deep undertow of comfort dominates most of executive chef Guy Stanaway's menu, executed by head chef Martin Webster. Beyond an amuse of prawn, tangy davidson plum and finger lime in a leaf comes roasted pumpkin, crunched up with saltbush and sticky lobes of black garlic with a brown butter and macadamia moat – it's like a deconstructed 'Strayan pumpkin soup.
A hefty fringe of spanner crab frames a lava-like pool of potato. Umamified by Japan's sesame-and-seaweed season-all furikake and bottarga, it's elegant, tasty cooking you want in the dead of winter.
You're eating with the seasons here. In late summer, reports came through of an endless parade of acidic treats. In winter, dinner can be like layering thermals. I'd skip the big bowl of two-toned beetroot soup with hay-smoked cream and coffee crunch whose many ingredients fail to really boost each other's charms. You'll instead want to pace for golden sweetbreads, the spongy thymus glands napped in rich, sweet jus with twinnish textures of shittake 'shrooms and abalone, a little bitter walnut closing the circuit.
If you happen to overdo it on the rib-stickers, sommelier and restaurant manager Ollie Tucker, last on the floor at Bennelong, gives a tour de force through the 1200-bottle collection of wines exclusively from vineyards of 11 hectares or fewer. Consider him the Big Lebowski rug of the operation – he really ties the room together. Other waiters fulfil their duty of getting plates to table, but that's about it in terms of colour or information. But often it's a Pennyweight fino sherry for those sweetbreads or a tight gewurztraminer from the Wine Farm in South Gippsland giving tension to your crab that makes everything sing.
So while not everything is revolutionary (in fact many of the winning dishes are not: see a bronze-skinned arc of duck breast, familiarly paired to hazelnuts, bitter radicchio and figs, or milk-fed beef partying with old pals jerusalem artichoke puree and a medley of enoki and oyster mushrooms) there's enough character in the overall package to draw a crowd beyond the regular touring set.
On that, if you are after a drive-by experience, you can take a step further down for the straighter small plates at Rare Hare, their more casual on-site eatery and provedore (with bonus views across the vines – Doot Doot Doot is shaded by drapes).
Back at the Doot, a lot of work goes into desserts that don't give huge return on investment. Carrot cream and a sable biscuit with a scoop of white chocolate parfait is all softness, richness and Christmas spice (not much carrot). A deconstructed yuzu tart is livelier with its sharp citrus kick. But it's a small shrug after some big wins at Mornington's own mini-MONA among the vines.
Pro Tip: You do not have to stay, but if you can save up, it's pretty special.
Go-to Dish: Spanner crab with potato, furikake and bottarga.