With everything that has happened this year, it's almost funny to contemplate that "dirt rain" was making the headlines. Remember? It was when the dust storms met normal storms and our backyards were turned to mud. But in truth, it's important we don't forget the state of Australia when this year began.
Let's hope that one of the lasting legacies of 2020 is that we remember just how vital our dirt is and that we live and die by the state of the bio wonderland. Moonah, a new 12-seat restaurant on the Bellarine Peninsula, is well placed to teach us that lesson.
This is a restaurant that begins its messaging from 10 kilometres out – specifically as you leave the highway for the ochre backroads to your final destination between two billabongs.
The pitch of the place is elegant, zero-waste cooking, most of it fuelled by the gardens of chef-operator Tobin Kent or else things sourced from very nearby.
The room itself supports the narrative arc of a geographically-driven restaurant. The soft and airy space is all natural textures – wicker chairs, soft linen curtains and tactile objects such as custom Cone 11 ceramics, which have all been made to match the palette of the dust and reeds and dams outside.
Every diner has a view over the billabong through big picture windows. Kent works calmly behind a sturdy antique bench. At the end of a hard but thoughtful year, it is one of the greatest antidotes to 2020 there could be.
Lunch (it's mostly lunch except for Saturday dinners, and you want daylight for the view), is all very soothing, but over 10 dishes, Kent will also blow your hair back.
Peppery radish bombs simply slicked with a sticky savoury-sweet dandelion tea reduction that finally makes sense of the carob of coffee.
More radish, this time turned into a fermented paste, is a bold base for salmon roe, all mounted on a cracker.
Or it might be a dish so of that moment I can all but guarantee you've missed it – electric-green broad beans in their prime with glistening jewels of immature garlic on a pillow of curds with a sparkle of whey vinaigrette.
It's pure, clean, and razor sharp – the kind of cooking you get when the chef knows a lot of their work is done by the time they pull the goods from the ground.
This is Kent's first restaurant, but he has been building towards this business for a long time. His own produce, grown on two hectares of kitchen gardens on his nearby property, have been making their way onto plates at former employers such as Gladioli for five years. He has done a stint at Brae, where he met Moonah's sommelier, Amy Tsai, and through La Bimba in Apollo Bay, he shored up his other suppliers, connecting with fishers who have eschewed the big markets to sell direct.
Proteins are highlights, but they're sustainable and in the right proportions – accents, rather than the main event. An opening snack of mellow, nutty house-cured pork belly strips, strapped around the sparkly crunch of pickled artichoke, is the only large animal on the plate.
Instead, there are the dark and sweet little foreclaws of local red shore crabs (ethical by-catch often thrown back) with the buttery briny and creamy smack of sea urchin roe from a species that is a blight on the bay.
Baby carrots, poached until they have a sweet coconutty edge, are surrounded by wild rock mussels – smaller and sweeter than their blousy big siblings, expertly paired to a citruss farmhouse ale from Collingwood brewer Molly Rose.
If it's been a while between wine matches then Tsai's 50-50 home and away game is a strong way to dive back in. She is right on the bleeding edge of what's hot, but never veers into the obscure for novelty's sake.
A Geelong Heroes sauvignon blanc has the right bright lift for those broad beans. A Terpin Quinto Quarto from the Slovenian border is on the straight-edge side of funky, having just enough skin contact to give the wine a nutty kick that cuts the richness of the newest new potatoes framing a just-warm egg yolk and a sweet black onion liquor. (Tip: save your chewy-crusted, seawater-spritzed sourdough to sponge up the dregs.)
Less is more at Moonah, and Kent and Tsai know it. The main course? A simple slip of 21-day dry-aged Peking duck breast, finished in the wood oven so it is sweetly smoky and its skin has cellophane crackle, and paired only with juicy bursts of sea herbs. It's bravely bare and more than enough.
The final stretch plays a fluffy goat's cheesecake, intensely floral honey and hazelnut rubble off against Embla chef Dave Verheul's summer flowers Saison vermouth. Whole citrus ice-cream is all zest and zip against a dark walnut praline and a candied seaweed cracker.
With just 12 seats and limited services the lesson is run, don't walk. This is a special restaurant. Balm for the soul. A light in a dark 2020.
Address 95 Minya Lane, Coonewarre, moonahrestaurant.com.au
Open Lunch Fri-Sun, dinner Sat.
Drinks Matches mix local spirits, beers and local and international wines. The list has the same curious well-crafted lean.
Pro tip Bookings are essential, for maximum groups of four.
Cost $190 a head, pre-paid on booking.
Score Scoring will recommence in 2021.