Out on an escarpment looking over the fertile plains of the Mitchell River in East Gippsland is an old cafe housed in a historic bakery. Smoke swirls from a chimney out the back while inside the kitchen runs like a Michelin-starred brigade. Pots of stock reduce on the stove and great pieces of beef are slid into the old wood-fired oven out back.
Behind the pans are two extremely well-qualified, some would argue overqualified, chefs with CVs that list some of the best restaurants around the state and across Europe: The Ledbury London, Vue de Monde, Circa and the Botanical. While husband and wife Anton Eisenmenger and Tanya Bertino once worked with top chefs such as Brett Graham and Tom Kitchin, today they serve simpler food at the Long Paddock. It's on a back road in the small town of Lindenow, outside Bairnsdale, 300 kilometres east of Melbourne. They have never been happier.
Their food is not just ordinary cafe food. It is exquisite food. The food you wished was served in your local bistro every day. A meal might start with tender new season's asparagus covered with a coddled egg, a scraping of parmesan cheese and herbed breadcrumbs. It might move on to a golden pie with buttery rough-puff pastry encasing nuggets of house-corned beef in a mustard veloute with carrots and pickled onions served with a side of spiced plum preserve. Or perhaps a dish of the lightest gnocchi laced with slivers of pickled truffle and pangrattato. Since it opened 16 months ago, the Long Paddock has been packed with farmers and foodies and has become one of those fabled hidden country gems.
Eisenmenger was born in Dalby in Queensland while Bertino grew up on a farm on the river flats at Lindenow. They first met as apprentices in Melbourne in 2004, working under Paul Wilson at the Botanical. "We had both started uni degrees," says Bertino, "which were put on hold in favour of international travel, partying and working casually in hospitality," she says. "It was then we both discovered a passion for cooking, a love of good booze, good service and good food."
But they never really hit it off and went their own ways. Bertino worked under the infamous Tom Aikens in London, returned to Melbourne for a stint at Vue de Monde then headed back to London to work at Michelin-starred the Ledbury. Eisenmenger, meanwhile followed Paul Wilson during his bistro pub days before working at Circa and Cumulus Inc. then heading off to work with Tom Kitchin in Edinburgh.
That was 2014. Just before he left, Eisenmenger by chance bumped into Bertino at the public bar at what was then the Builders Arms in Fitzroy. That night he introduced her to Negronis. They promised to meet up again when he returned from Scotland.
The promise was kept. Now a couple, they agreed they didn't want to work for someone else and started hunting for a place of their own.
"We both knew what outstanding produce is grown in Lindenow," says Eisenmenger.
East Gippsland is one of the nation's food bowls. On the river flats below the Long Paddock grows hundreds of hectares of some of the best vegetables in the nation. East Gippsland also produces excellent grass-fed beef and there is a fishing port nearby at Lakes Entrance.
"Anton was also reminding me that my family were still in town," says Bertino. "We just had to find the right place."
They looked around Bairnsdale and found some good locations but the fit was not right. Then they came across the 100-year-old former bakery in Bertino's home town. "It was a bit small and poky," Eisenmenger says. "What kept us coming back was the old scotch oven." Soon they were signing the lease and then discovered Bertino was pregnant with their first child, Isobel.
A year and a bit on and the Long Paddock has woven its place into the community. Since they opened local gardeners have inundated them with fruit, which Bertino preserves and uses in fruit tarts and cakes.
"We get a lot of older people who get a lot of pleasure from coming out for a scone and a cup of tea," she says. "It's really important to us that everybody feels welcome, and our menu and price points reflect that. People can feel threatened by unfamiliar things. It's different from Melbourne down here."
The Long Paddock, 93-95 Main Street, Lindenow, 0351571638, longpaddock.com.au. Open Mon & Wed-Fri 7.30am-3.30pm, Sun 8am-3.30pm.
Farm gate opens
Since the Long Table opened, the old Lindenow butcher shop has reopened as a farm gate for local beef farmer Peter Treasure and his neighbour Andrew Bulmer, a vegetable grower. Called Graze and Harvest, it specialises in beef products such as beef bacon and also stocks local fish, eggs, honey and preserves.
143 Main Road, Lindenow; Open daily 8.30am-5.30pm; 0439 309 334; grazeandharvest.com.au