Chef Matt Wilkinson was born to have his hands in the dirt. He more than proved this at Pope Joan, the garden-girt cafe restaurant he founded in Brunswick East, where you might, if you were lucky, have experienced him at his best, draped in a pinny, swigging a local beer and grilling retired dairy beef and patch-fresh vegetables into summer feasts beneath fairy lights.
The Pope Joan brand and its produce-driven philosophies live on at Sofitel Melbourne on Collins, but Wilkinson himself has been on an absolute roller coaster since he sold out of the business last year.
You might recall Wilkinson had just opened Crofter Dining Room and Bar on the former Hellenic Republic site, right before the entire Made Establishment collapsed. Be glad then, both for yourself and for this ultra green-thumbed chef, that he has found a perfect nesting place for summer among the stunning kitchen gardens of Mornington Peninsula's Montalto.
Montalto has always boasted one of Victoria's top-rung kitchen gardens, but given a year with little else to focus on, Julie Bennett's garden has become a Peter Rabbit illustration made manifest.
The velvet green slopes opposite the restaurant's piazza form the backdrop to wooden teepees of beans, proud, spiky globe artichokes, full heads kissing the sky, and sweetcorn that's just poking through. Come January, there will be 60 varieties of tomatoes heading for glory plus 30 types of pumpkin. If you've become hot under the collar for horticulture in lockdown, this is a dream come true.
Imagine this in Wilkinson's paws. Better yet, taste it. He is calling himself the captain of the big ship Montalto, which has the restaurant, Tuck's fried-chicken-focused menu next door, and the piazza, which Wilkinson says serves 600 people at weekends.
It's in the piazza we find ourselves on a sunny Monday, and while this is a shorter, sharper a la carte offering, it gives you a clear vision of Wilkinson's strengths armed with such a strong artillery.
Billlowy, char-crusted ciabatta is a good soaker for spicy olive oil or the bounty of the charcuterie board – a chunky pork and pistachio terrine; a chicken liver parfait that doesn't hide its iron-rich origins, and a fudgy scoop of mustardy zucchini pickle that might be better described as a vegetable jam.
Pizzas are a fixture of the piazza, but it wouldn't be foolish to construct a meal of salads and sides.
A salad of young beetroot, mint and lentils is showered in a fine dusting of pecorino romano. Roast cauliflower comes with a slick of tahini, a good fresh squeeze of lemon and capers fried to crunchy, salty bites. A cos salad takes a surprising and interesting left turn with a tangy dressing of rhubarb – who knew?
What can't be plucked from the garden has come from very nearby. Mussel escabeche is a staple of both the restaurant and the outdoor menu, the plump, warm molluscs freed from shells and washed in a tangy fennel-forward mix pinging with coriander seed and enriched with butter emulsion. On Mondays and Fridays, Wilkinson serves big bowls of mussels tossed in a red pepper romesco.
Wilkinson couldn't be happier to be back in the kitchen, and there could hardly be a better kitchen for him. Inside the main restaurant he is working on a menu that he says is taking him back to Circa in its prime.
When the King Edward potatoes are ready, he'll cook them simply in ocean water from Port Phillip bay, and serve them with boiled egg crushed with herbs and olive oil. Red peppers will be blistered and paired with Main Ridge goat's cheese. Carrots will be cooked confit to scoop up with smoked yoghurt.
Proteins are minimal, sustainable and aquaculture-focused. Beyond those mussels, cuttlefish will be a constant, enlivened by more romesco. Lesser-loved fish such as herring will also get the ocean water curing.
Currently, there is a gently confit-cooked chicken leg, razzed with salsa verde, and he has plans for the likes of house-made duck neck sausage.
This is fresh and revivifying cooking in one of the most bucolic settings imaginable. And of course, with Montalto's exemplary cellar to go with it.
A note here for anyone dining out at the moment. Warnings of mass staff shortages across the state have inevitably come true. As such, businesses are having to work both smarter and much harder. It might take you a while to get your order in, though it takes no time at all for our dishes to emerge from the kitchen.
You can play it smart, too. Order a bottle to share, rather than getting frustrated if there are delays ordering by the glass. Want to taste the range? Come early for a cellar door session. Easy done.
Back to dessert – these dip into familiar Wilkinson terrain, like a lemon and polenta pudding (sadly for us it had sold out).
But if you can think of a better end of day than taking the mango and coconut ice-cream, and maybe Montalto's sparkling rosé to go, and having dessert overlooking the nearby bay, I'd like to hear it.
Game on Mornington. It's good to be back.
Address 33 Shoreham Road, Red Hill South, 03 5989 8412, montalto.com.au
Open Picnics and Piazza Fri-Mon 11am-5pm; restaurant Sat-Sun 11am-5pm
Drinks Montalto's standout wines are their single-vineyard, cool-climate pinot noir and chardonnay. They also have house beers, cider and new bespoke gin.
Pro tip Picnic packages are offered if you want to graze among the stunning sculpture park.
Cost Sides and salads $8-$15; mains $35.
Score Scoring is paused while the industry gets back onto its feet