2 8 Russell St Balnarring, VIC 3926
|Opening hours||Daily 7am-11pm|
|Features||Licensed, Family friendly, Food shop, Groups, Vegetarian friendly, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 5983 2559|
Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Stewart Forrest, owner of the wildly ambitious, avowedly casual new food emporium out the back of the Balnarring shops, reckons he knows nothing about hospitality. In fact, he's an engineer who specialises in constructing freeways and flyovers. But then he spotted a gap in the market on the Mornington Peninsula and his mind started ticking: fancy wineries and functional family dining were sorted but there wasn't heaps in between.
His optimistic response is Gourmet Paddock, a 100-seat, multi-outlet eating hall which welcomes diners, drinkers, shoppers, kids and grown-ups. It's like a department store food hall but with sandy toes and a sun-kissed nose and, since it opened in October, the Paddock has been packed.
You could come for juice after a morning surf and buy local bread, fish and meat to take back to the holiday house. You might roll in with the gang for a cooked breakfast and put the kids in the drawing corner while you nurse a second coffee.
Perhaps you make it back for date night and sit at the bar for steamed mussels and champagne. You enjoy that so much you book for dinner with friends and put a shared steak or seafood platter (or both, why not?) in the centre of the table. You can even come in with towel and togs and grab takeaway fish 'n' chips.
It's democratic and welcoming with an eager energy, boosted by keen waiters and the in-house butcher, fishmonger and fiery wok station. Forrest's flyover expertise is reflected in an elevated wine rack which swoops across the premises – it's the grandest detail in this glamorous room and, as you'd expect, Mornington Peninsula wines feature strongly.
The menu is enormous and could probably do with a little trimming to give all dishes a chance to shine. Flavours are as generous as the portions. Raw kingfish and scallops are tumbled with coriander and lime to create a casual ceviche. Vegetables are tempura-fried and served over "MOC cheese", a vegan cashew spread: they're gorgeously golden and crisp.
Beef from Speckle Park, just down the road in Merricks, is available exclusively here: it's dry-aged, then grilled over Japanese charcoal and red gum and served with chips, roast vegetables and your choice of sauce. The chilli-studded chimichurri is a fresh and crunchy counterpoint to the smoke-licked, deeply beefy meat.
The woks work hard, sizzling curries made with house-made pastes and turning out snapper fillets that are crisp-skinned, sweet-fleshed, piled over a week's worth of bok choy and drizzled with sticky tamarind sauce.
Desserts are classic: there's poached stone fruit with coconut sorbet and a cheesecake with passionfruit curd. Chocolate fans will be lured by the oozy fondant and also by the free chocolate fountain with strawberry skewers.
Forrest's inexperience has won out in a "why can't we?" attitude: a profusion of ideas is rendered with enthusiasm. Restaurants are so often born out of an owner or chef's personal quest so it's refreshing to be swept up by a place where the motivation is to wonder what people – all of them, billionaires and beach bums – might want, then work like crazy to make it real.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)