Shop 5 850 Heidelberg-Kinglake Rd Hurstbridge, VIC 3099
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9718 0324|
We know that good things come in small packages, but lately we're also discovering they come with a bit of a hike. The rent crisis in Sydney and Melbourne isn't just punishing people who want to live there. It's absolutely squeezing restaurants already suffering staff shortages and crippling competition.
No wonder, then, that some of the best dining fun you can have right now is out of town. Every smart eater's list should have Geelong's Igni, Anglesea's Captain Moonlite and Ballarat's weekend-only newcomer Underbar right up top. To that they can now add Greasy Zoe's – the deceivingly named house of smart, sustainable cookery, fun wines and good times at the end of the Hurstbridge line.
Those good times are coming to you courtesy of chef Zoe Birch, possibly known to you from her time at the Courthouse and Healesville hotels, and who has established this 15-seat, set-menu operation with partner Lachlan Gardner in a former grocery store in her home town.
It's true testament to the tiny-mighty model. Birch's kitchen, which she runs solo, occupies one corner of the pitch-roofed timber and brick room reminiscent of a ski chalet (albeit one belting Nick Cave and the new Avalanches album), and it's only Gardner on the floor. But they're playing it smart. It's the old Gerald's Bar rule on wine: the first drinkers of the night decide which three reds and whites are on pour. For $85 and a zone two Myki ticket, you get nine-courses, largely delivered in snack form.
Saying that, they aren't cutting corners. Every single thing has been made in-house, or sourced from locals – right down to the rustic flatware, designed by them in collaboration with local artist Yvette De Lacy. First comes a pickle, all brightness, garlic and crunch. Their own salumi stars coarse, spicy salami (almost like 'nduja with sliceable integrity) and lardo, the intensity of the cured, chewy back fat scythed by a cumquat paste.
Would you travel the hour just for an oyster? You might. Theirs are from Wapengo, Australia's only certified organic oyster farm, and its service just below room temperature with a cheek of lime makes its minerality and creaminess pop, and shows these kids don't just have the quality goods, but know how to use them.
See also here: the ashed goat's cheese from Stone and Crow (the fromagerie side project from one of the guys at Yarra Valley Dairy) filling a buttery, beetroot tartlet crowned with floral amaranth flowers – an old dog of a flavour combo given new tricks.
Meanwhile, a dehydrated raft of silverbeet, salty and intense, spread with house-made ricotta, ice plant and clover, is everything you desperately hoped wheatgrass juice would be but wasn't.
The double gold medal for nutty, smoky, beer-snack fame goes to the mousse of golden Eildon trout, lightly smoked, whipped with lemon and mustard and sandwiched in golden linseed crackers.
This food could stand up anywhere. But you want it here. Outside, pre-sunset, locals sit at big timber tables with their dogs and G and Ts. Everything smells of eucalypt and gentle wood smoke from the kitchen's grill. And is it too much to say that it just feels nice to be in a room where the people running it seem content?
I don't say that lightly. The restaurant world seems to be reaching fever pitch. Chefs are quitting because their desire to serve quality produce, cooked the way they want to, has to be balanced against the books, and diners often aren't willing to cop the costs of the overheads.
It's genuinely novel to find people living that dream serving food at a price you can afford. They do the legwork for it, though. They travel to Eildon every two weeks for that trout. From Timbarra farm, they collect 20 chickens a month and dry-age them. It's breast night on our visit, rubbed in honey, roasted, and served simply with their own seeded mustard and spaghetti squash sourced from the same farm.
After this you've still got an apple-laden croissant showered in cheese; a dessert of apple sorbet, whipped panna cotta and crumbled sponge turned bright yellow from the egg yolks of corn-fed hens. Between it all, wines tripping from the Loire, to Kremstal in Austria to Dromana.
The name? It's an inside joke between Birch and her mum. It doesn't do justice to the place. But if that's the worst you can say, that says a lot.
Pro Tip: The wine's good. And it's a five-minute walk from the train station.
Go-to Dish: It's a daily-changing snack-fest, but the house-made salumi is great.