There's been a changing of the guard at boutique hotel Jackalope in Merricks North. Taking charge of the open kitchen at fine-diner Doot Doot Doot is Simon Tarlington, who counts Gordon Ramsay, Peter Gilmore and Michelin-starred British chef Clare Smyth among his mentors.
You might remember Tarlington from Windsor's now-closed Highline Restaurant, where refined dishes drawing on the restaurant's farm and playful dishes such as a house-made marshmallow toasted over a flaming pine cone earned him his first hat. He subsequently helped Red Hill's Paringa Estate achieve two hats.
Now Tarlington says he'll be putting the fun into fine dining in his new role. Speaking to peninsula locals during last year's long lockdown convinced him customers were keen for less formality and more choice.
"Degustations can be a bit stiff and pretentious," he says. "I wanted diners to be able to relax a bit and make the experience more fun and interactive."
He's switched from a degustation format to a lively $125-a-head set menu that shines a light on Indigenous and peninsula-grown ingredients, with multiple choices along the way.
Dishes on the new menu include Tasmanian sea treasures, reminiscent of the Japanese savoury custard chawanmushi, wallaby bolognese, and a cheeky technique-driven play on surf and turf with a jacket potato alongside. No spoilers but even the printed menu contains a playful hands-on element that has sparked conversations between diners at separate tables.
Organic and family-run vineyards figure prominently on the revised wine list, with diners invited to confer on a wine experience ($120-a-head) that can be surprising or more straightforward.
And over in the hotel's vine-fringed daytime restaurant, Rare Hare's foundation chef Toby Marks continues to showcase excellent peninsula produce in fire-licked dishes that borrow ideas from all over.
Doot Doot Doot open daily from 6pm. Rare Hare open Sun-Thu noon-5pm, Fri-Sat noon-9pm.
Jackalope Hotel, 166 Balnarring Road, Merricks North, 03 5931 2500, jackalopehotels.com