29 Chapel Street Windsor, Victoria 3181
Windsor’s Railway Hotel, hitherto known as the pub with a 24/7 bottle-o and gay-friendly Sunday sessions, has recently upped its game, or sold out, depending on your perspective. Specifically: it installed chef Simon Tarlington late last year, an ex-Quay young gun who ousted the Railway’s club beats for serious eats.
To be clear, this is a rejuvenation of the pub rather than an all-out reinvention. Downstairs is still every bit a local, with big screens showing the footy, open-mic Thursdays and $4 schooners at happy hour. The all-hours bottle shop also remains.
The major changes are upstairs at Highline, the new restaurant part of the pub, freshly kitted out in bright blonds and charcoals, zigzags and native scrub, and if you go now, you’ll find yourself in that fabled dining sweet spot – that pre-popular phase, where the ego is small, the menu over-delivers for cheap prices, and tables are easy to come by, even on a Saturday night.
Tarlington is offering five courses plus treats for $60. You can also go a la carte or ditch the restaurant for the outdoor deck and the bar menu with anchovy toasties or half a roasted chicken for a cool $16. There’s evidence that Tarlington worked under Peter Gilmore, Quay’s chef-owner and champion of our nation’s edibles. The table is dressed with gnarled driftwood, kangaroo paw and banksia pods. Mountain pepper gives a number of dishes a tart and fragrant kick, starting with some house-made salami from the pub’s own pigs, raised at their farm in the Strathbogie Ranges. The salami forms part of some impressive opening snacks, alongside spicy pickled pumpkin sticks and oysters Kilpatrick in reverse: a thick bacon baton in a tangy broth in the shell, wearing the dehydrated oyster like a fish-flavoured hat. It’s weird in the best way possible – like bacon dashi with crunch.
Tarlington is also flying the nose-to-tail flag hard, pairing his star proteins and vegetables with other bits of themselves or their kin. It’s sadism meets sustainability, with often delicious results. An heirloom tomato is hollowed out, lightly dehydrated to intensify the flavour, then stuffed with a little goat’s curd and fresh cherry tomatoes like a plant-based turducken (that birds-stuffed-with-other-birds wonder). It’s bedded in a rich, black olive and hazelnut soil with strawberry vinegar – classic flavours. Or prawns, the bodies poached in a shellfish stock, rolled in a dust of the shells and scattered over a rich emulsion of the flavour-filled heads with green beans. Extra seasoning could bump the dish from good to great. It’s an impressive plate to find at a pub.
The kid’s got moves, no question. He’s currently doing the best fish dish in Chapel Street. Plump, pan-fried john dory fillets are stacked alongside zucchini flowers, a mellow, buttery puree of summer squash and a tangle of faux noodles – strips of raw squid that gently firm up to udon consistency as a spicy, gingery fish broth is added. There’s the occasional spill born of unchecked enthusiasm, such as the tasty but busy 50 shades of lamb dish – a salty, meaty ballotine of the rump wrapped in lamb-breast bacon with pastrami and a lamb stock and wattle jus, but that’s quickly glazed over by the measured elegance of dessert. The milk and honey dish is a smart take on everyone’s current obsession with dried and flavoured dairy. You get a snowdrift in a bowl of dehydrated milk-skin crisps – some plain, others infused with honey and a meringue-like version whipped with sugar. Dig through the debris to find a dense honey cake and syrup, and the subtle softness of a mousse that tastes like chilled milk sucked though an ANZAC biscuit.
There’s a little work to be done before the package really clicks. The fitout is elegant and the soundtrack is a blend of blues, jazz and ’80s disco, but fewer lumens would reduce the feeling of exposure that comes from spotlights beaming off the hard edges.It would also help to see more on-message wines on the list. Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc and one sweet riesling represent half the whites by the glass, and at the other end of the spectrum you have slightly redundant bottles of Penfolds Grange at $1.5k-plus each. But that’s OK. Right now, Highline is all about what’s on the plate, and that’s some elegant cooking from a young chef with eyes locked tight on the future. Tarlington’s going places. Take the ride.
Pro tip Monday is locals night – take 25 per cent off the bar menu
Status Get in before everyone else
Go-to dish Of the sea – john dory fillets with squid noodles, zucchini flowers, squash and spicy fish broth
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent 19Outstanding 20 The best of the best