33 Shoreham Road Red Hill South, Victoria 3937

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Opening hours Mon-Sun 11:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Features Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Degustation, Events, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Green-eco focus, Groups, Licensed, Long lunch, Outdoor seating, Private dining, Romance-first date, Views, Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Martin Webster
Seats 100
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone (03) 5989 8412

THERE'S a good reason to visit the Mornington Peninsula outside the summer holiday season — TRAFFIC.

At this time of the year, it's as if half of Melbourne, with Sherman tanks for cars, has invaded this rural enclave. And the new freeway has exacerbated the congestion problem rather than alleviated it. Jeez, so much for a leisurely drive to the country, even if it is only an hour or so from the city.

This region is starting to resemble an outer suburb.

The beaches and all the associated attractions lure jaded city folk and families southwards, which is perfectly understandable, but the local wine scene is a big factor in the peninsula's success. Those savvy enough to straddle the drink-and-dine mix in equal good measure tend to fare better. Montalto is leading by example.

First-timers always marvel at the delightful setting. From the airy dining room with tables set neatly with white napery, the view is, of course, of vineyards. There is also a vegetable and herb garden. What's grown is used, where possible, in the cooking. An outside piazza and cafe offer more casual eating during the day, and while kids are more than welcome in the "proper" restaurant, it's easy to see why parents take them to the cafe. Plenty of nooks and crannies to explore.

Curiosity is aroused by Sebastian Di Mauro's Astroturf sculpture Clip, an imposing piece that won the inaugural Montalto sculpture prize in 2003. It's proudly displayed to the left of the restaurant steps.

Apart from being food and wine aficionados, Montalto's owners, John and Wendy Mitchell, are art lovers who instigated this prestigious sculpture prize, and many pieces are on the property.

OK, feeling quite peckish now as I am really here to eat and drink, and, I hope, to do so well.

It's a busy night, with the large, imposing and squeaky front door constantly opening and closing as diners go in and out. Still, the smartly dressed and pleasant-enough waiters appear to be coping, if perfunctorily. A gracious sense of hospitality was lacking on this night. One waiter plonked down an amuse-bouche — what turned out to be an uplifting, delicate carrot soup served in a white demi-tasse — mumbling "compliments of the chef", but I didn't quite hear anything else, and then she whisked away my empty cup before my guest had finished. Such unmannerly behaviour doesn't fit in any restaurant, especially one that strives to hit higher notes. And mostly Montalto does.

The wine list comprises four pages, is easy to follow and features the estate wines under the Montalto and Pennon Hill labels — mostly current vintages on offer by the glass. The following two pages are dedicated to local wine, with a few other Australian and some French, Italian and Spanish wines, a smattering of dessert wines and three beers on the last page.

The wines are listed under clear headings such as aromatic and light-bodied whites or medium to full-bodied red. Pricing is fair, and while there are smart wines in between, tweaking or tightening the mix would turn this into a really top list. Still, easy enough to pick the Inama Soave riserva 2005 ($85), which was somewhat forward but had loads of complexity and texture, and was a good match to the selection of dishes because, yes, I was dining with a vegetarian. The entree of zucchini flower risotto ($18) turns out to be the highlight on the list of five offerings. It's creamy, rich but not heavy, as the risotto is cut by an acid butter (a mix of white wine, shallots and butter) that lifts the entire dish. Very good.

My entree, four large Canadian scallops ($19) minus the coral, which I always regard as a delicacy, sit atop a nicely balanced peperonata mix — finely chopped roasted red capsicum, onion, garlic and chorizo have been enriched and reduced by four hours of cooking, then enlivened by freshly crushed tomatoes. Nothing dominates here, and it works well.

The main course list includes six meat or fish dishes, but no vegetarian offerings. On request, however, a mushroom lasagne with local asparagus ($32) was prepared. It looked great and by all accounts was as good.

The Port Phillip Bay snapper ($38) was excellent. The fillet was sweet, flavoursome, moist and not too big, one of the best pieces of fish I've tasted in quite some time. It came topped with five spears of nutty asparagus, ends peeled so no woody bits remained, and a sauce described as a "saffron, tomato and basil fumet". Chef Barry Davis makes the fumet from scratch, starting with crayfish heads and building it up with garlic, shallots, saffron (which doesn't dominate), plus tomato and basil, which is added at the end with some lemon juice to give balance to the sauce and therefore the dish. It's very satisfying.

While portions are just right, side-dishes are necessary: kipfler potatoes ($8) roasted in duck fat are very good (although not exactly vegetarian — oops, should have warned my friend), and the dish of "warm Montalto garden greens" ($8) turns out to be a mix of perfectly cooked green and yellow beans, but apparently not from Montalto this time, according to Davis. No matter, they are good.

Six desserts and cheese to finish — the ubiquitous and perennial favourite panacotta features ($18), but this one is lightly flavoured with orange blossom water, yet dutifully creamy, served with poached rhubarb that is from the garden, local strawberries, and tart and excellent rhubarb sorbet. A good summery version.

A friend commented recently after dining at Montalto that some of the dishes were rather heavy. Certainly sauces, glazes and fumets feature: not surprising considering that Davis worked for many years with French maestro Philippe Mouchel, who coincidentally was the first chef at Montalto. The risotto, scallops, mushroom lasagne and snapper showed no clunkiness or heavy-handed treatment. They were well-executed and cooked dishes.

And I'd go back in a flash — but I might wait until the summer holidays are over.

Score: 1-9: Unacceptable. 10-11: Just OK, some shortcomings. 12: Fair. 13:Getting there. 14: Recommended. 15: Good. 16: Really good. 17: Truly excellent. 18: Outstanding. 19-20: Approaching perfection, Victoria's best.