Want to sample Victoria's best food? Head west, city slickers. Tucked away on a Geelong backstreet you'll find Aaron Turner, anointed Citi Chef of the Year at Monday's launch of the 37th edition of The Age Good Food Guide. In a ceremony at Melbourne's lavish Plaza Ballroom, Turner was recognised for his creative vegetable-driven tasting menu at newcomer Igni.
Turner came to diners' attentions with his first restaurant in regional Drysdale, before going AWOL in the United States for a year after Loam's unexpected closure. He returned to Victoria sporting a Ned Kelly beard, and surprised many by opening a Nashville-style shrine to fried chicken. As it turned out, Belles Hot Chicken proved a stroke of culinary, trend-setting genius. Nevertheless, there were sighs of relief with Turner's coming-of-age project, Igni – on Monday night named Victoria's best regional restaurant.But you'll have to head further west again for Victoria's pinnacle dining experience. Dan Hunter's Brae was again named Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year.
The bucolic Birregurra setting is no longer Victoria's secret indulgence – one of only a handful of Australian restaurants on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list earlier this year. So while a meal at Hunter's hands is reasonably priced by international standards at $190 (without drinks), you may find yourself competing for a seat with food tourists from even farther afield.
The Age Good Food Guide 2017 editor Roslyn Grundy said "regional" turned out to be flavour of the year. "Without being conscious of it as we made decisions about award-winners, this really was the year when regional restaurants put city restaurants on notice."
Grundy said the desire of many chefs to grow their own produce was partly behind the regional push of fine dining.
But back in the asphalt jungle there were winners too. Attica and Minamishima were again recognised as top-tier restaurants with three hats and Vue de Monde, now helmed by American chef Justin James (previously of New York's Eleven Madison Park) was also back on top of Melbourne's dining scene after a short-lived stumble.
Also in the CBD, Russell Street's Embla was named Best New Restaurant, though really it's a wine bar.
Best New Restaurant: Embla Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
The Age's senior restaurant critic, Gemima Cody, said there were no surprises when the second venture by the team behind Carlton's popular Town Mouse turned out to be good, "but we also expected the downstairs section to just be a wine bar". Not so.
"The team's always-amazing hospitality mixed with bistro food as imagined by [executive chef] Dave Verheul has turned out to be one of the most interesting and comfortable places to eat in the city. We can't stop going back." Cody said phase two of Embla – the restaurant proper – was under construction upstairs from the wine saloon and was something for Melburnians to get excited about in 2017.
Melbourne's best cheap eats: Dive in to the soft-shell crab soup at Hem 27. Photo: Wayne Taylor
The Age Good Food Guide is no longer just about finely tuned gastronomic treasures – the domain of the well-heeled or of a special night out. This year's guide includes city and suburban Cheap Eat gems. The top tip for a thrifty meal in the new guide is a cheerful Vietnamese eatery in Flemington. Best Cheap Eat, Hem 27, was recognised for its regional specialities and a seasonally revolving menu, showing that quality can work side-by-side with quantity in competition for Melbourne's hard-earned.
Melbourne restaurant 'legends' Geraud Fabre and Jean-Paul Prunetti from France Soir. Photo: Pat Scala
Jointly taking out this year's Vittoria Coffee Legend award for carrying South Yarra favourite France-Soir to its 30th year was long-time owner Jean-Paul Prunetti and chef Geraud Fabre.
StreetSmart, which has partnered with hospitality businesses since 2003 to raise more than $2 million for programs addressing homelessness was recognised with the Guide's Food for Good award.
The Age Good Food Guide 2017 will be on sale in newsagents and bookstores from Tuesday, September 13, 2016, with all book purchases receiving free access to the new Good Food app.