THIS WEEK: Fire
101 WILLIAMSON STREET, BENDIGO, 5443 8671
LICENSED AE DC MC V EFTPOS
TUESDAY-FRIDAY NOON-2.30PM, 5.30PM-LATE; SATURDAY NOON-LATE
ENTREES: $9-$16; MAINS: $26-$62; DESSERTS: $16
I love a restaurant that shares its intentions the moment you walk in. That's what happens at the Woodhouse where you come upon beef in dry-aging cabinets right inside the front door. Lit up like jewellery, showcased like trophies, it's obvious the steaks are there because the stakes are high: these precious meaty prizes are at the heart of the restaurant's mission.
Keep going and you'll enter the warm brick 100-seat dining room, built around a huge two-sided fireplace. The air is pleasantly tinged with wood smoke and the tables are packed with locals who already know they'll be looked after with happy professionalism.
Three types of wood-fired cooking are threaded through the menu. The grill burns through 40 tonnes of red gum a year, imparting its special flavour and caramelisation to the steaks: those dry-aged wagyu from Sher and Cohuna and grass-fed beef from O'Connor and Kiabella, the latter dry-aged off-site by an Inglewood butcher, which hangs whole carcasses for 21 days. The grill is also used to smoke cherry tomatoes which then head to the wood-fired oven where they collapse juicily atop pizza. Those pizzas might find themselves cooking alongside spatchcock with a sourdough stuffing or the tasty pumpkin wedges that star on the superb list of sides.
Lamb shoulder also dances between the cooking stations. It's sealed on the grill, poached sous vide for 24 hours, roasted in the pizza oven then given a last lick of caramelisation on the wood grill. You can have it to share with heaps of sides or – happy dance! – have a small, succulent brick of it as an entree with barley, saltbush and smoked labne. Lamb shoulder is delicious but so filling; turning it into an entree is a lovely democratisation.
A Japanese konro grill is the latest addition to the kitchen and the third type of wood-fired cooking. Its intense charcoal heat is applied mostly to seafood, notably the tiger prawn and cuttlefish that work together in an Asian-inspired entree with pickled bean shoots and paw paw, squid ink and house-made XO sauce. It's delicate but the flavours are persistent and balanced.
I'm not big on name-dropping producers in restaurant reviews but the link to the land is so powerful here that it just makes sense. Many of central Victoria's best farmers (McIvor Farm pork, Locheilan Farm brie, for example) deliver their produce direct to the back door. Cured meat from McIvor's rare breed Berkshire pigs is used on Woodhouse's ham and pineapple pizza, turning a takeaway staple into a classy gourmet treat. It's just one example of the way connection promotes the honouring of ingredients and then a better diner experience.
This is a generous restaurant in many ways and dessert seals the deal. An apple and pear terrine with chestnut cake and cream is a saucy amalgam of sweet succulence and caramel crunch, and the wattleseed creme brulee showcases yet one more lick of flame to create a burnished sugar crust.
The pizza oven is at the back of the dining room but the rest of the kitchen is tucked away. Given the romance with the flame, it would be apropos to see a little more of it, which is why it's great to hear that owner and chef Paul Pitcher plans to renovate next year, roofing the courtyard and opening up the kitchen to offer even more sizzle with the steak. Even now, this is still an impressive restaurant, part of a Bendigo surge that's making a handsome goldfields town ever more delicious.
122 Russell Street, Melbourne, 96545923. Sun-Fri lunch, daily dinner
Every Sunday a set lunch menu runs with a different theme, with plenty of dishes appearing from the wood oven and grill. July 23 stars pork rack and July 30 is vegetarian: love the variety and I bet both will be delicious. Book via their website.
14 Meyers Place, Melbourne, 96505525. Daily lunch and dinner
The parilla charcoal grill is the hero at this Argentine restaurant. You'd expect the steak to be good but vegie dishes such as the roasted eggplant with garlic and orange are surprisingly fabulous.
97 Whitehorse Road, Balwyn, 98171000. Fri-Sun lunch, daily dinner
A handsome white oven turns out thin-crust pizzas with bubbly charred rims. Try the asparagus with pancetta and buffalo mozzarella.
WILSON & MARKET
163-185 Commercial Road, South Yarra, 98047530. Sat-Sun lunch, Wed-Sun dinner
A wood-grilled rotisserie is a feature at Paul Wilson's new restaurant at Prahran Market. Different woods – mallee root, hickory and apple, for example – are used to impart different flavours to meat and fish.