29 Chapel Street Windsor, Victoria 3181
It's 2009. You're a young chef working at a hot restaurant in London. You're charged with a serious duty – making the bread sauce that's served with partridge. Overtasked and distracted, you make a terrible mistake: you leave the sauce too long and instead of being smooth and silky it becomes sad and sludgy. The bollocking rings in your ears for days.
And yet. There was something about that bready mush. It wasn't right for the partridge but it was tasty and the idea was filed away for eight years until now, when it becomes a key building block for a seriously tasty dish on a degustation menu in faraway Melbourne. Because now you are head chef at Highline, the upstairs restaurant at the Railway Hotel, and you can do what you like with the bread sauce.
The chef is Simon Tarlington, who was 18 at the time of Breadgate. The London restaurant was Gordon Ramsay's Maze. The dish that makes the best of a bad situation is a mushroom "porridge" cooked out in mushy brioche, layered with sea urchin custard, scallop crumbs and glistening seaweed. It's gorgeous.
Highline has an unusual set up. The Railway is a pub spilling with hale and hearty cheer. The restaurant is tucked away in a first-floor corner which used to be the cocktail bar. There's a separate entrance on Chapel Street but it's awkward – you veer right at the toilets and steer through an anteroom into what feels like the tradesman's entrance. Once you're in, though, the compact, comfortable dark-toned dining room speaks of serious intent.
Owners Katrina and Wayne Sullivan have a farm in the Strathbogie Ranges north of Melbourne which supplies much of the meat, fruit and vegetables served in both restaurant and pub. The pub menu is wholesome and shareable: think roast chook, lamb shoulder and foil-baked fish at very decent prices.
Highline's fancy food comes from the same kitchen. A pictorial menu amps up the farm connection.
Lamb backstrap is lightly cured in native spices, smoked then served as a kind of autumnal tartare with pickled quince, funky beetroot powder and a scattering of "fallen" herb leaves. In typical Tarlington style, it's clever but comforting, interesting yet not too outlandish and its trickiest element (last year's fermented beetroot trimmings) is used to build layers of flavour rather than show off.
Eye fillet is poached sous vide in a sugary stock, then cooked in a pan so the surface has fierce caramelisation and the meat an almost jellied tenderness. Lean, tender fillet is a safe choice for a progressive menu.
Even though it's funkified (seasoned with mussel powder and served over a burnt onion and Jerusalem artichoke puree), this dish made me think of a private school prefect in an op-shop leather jacket: he's rocking it, but he's not quite as naughty as he wants to be.
The cheese course is excellent fun. A hay-baked sherry-soaked apple is the shrivelled plinth for a quenelle of whipped washed rind cheese. It's served with crisp, peppery grissini.
The textural shifts of a "milk and honey" dessert are followed by a toast-your-own chocolate marshmallow. It's fun theatre and comes with bonus "oohs" and "ahs" and a sugar rush that chases me all the way home.
I like Tarlington's mixture of ingredient honouring and kitchen frolics, and the farm-to-table connection is meaningfully expressed in thoughtful food. Sometimes the menu shows the strain of balancing diner whims and cheffy wiles but it's definitely worth hopping on Highline for the ride.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)