97 Main Road Hepburn Springs, Victoria 3461
There are dining rules you can take to the bank. Don't eat sushi from a servo; avoid seafood specials unless you're standing on a pier, and beware the restaurants on tourist turf. It's almost as if there's a law that dictates the better a restaurant's location, the more aioli and sadness there has to be on the plate. Rent is usually the problem. It's hard to make margins in the middle tier without cutting corners. But lately, that's changing.
Up north, the team from Sydney's Three Blue Ducks, who proved mid-tier tastiness could succeed in the tourist town of Falls Creek, have just flapped down in Byron Bay, a short hop from where Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis of Loam (RIP) have just opened wine-focused Fleet. And here in Hepburn Springs there is now Moor Please, adding Middle Eastern brunch, pizza, and wine to the spa country trail mix of snacks.
Bask in the sun on the porch while working through a bottle of Louis Roederer fizz. It's $135, but that's about the same price you will pay to immerse yourself in Hepburn's pungent healing waters. Your choice.
This is a collaboration between two of Melbourne's most pie-fingered operators – Joseph Abboud, the guy who brought bright Middle Eastern to Melbourne with Rumi, the Moor's Head (North and South) and who recently opened a brewery, and Jason M Jones (Entrecote, Stables of Como).
It is a light, easy space of buffed concrete, and black-and-white bistro chairs with a wall of wines and tiny accents of red – a meat slicer on the kitchen pass, used to thunk through fragrant slices of bastourma (air-dried beef cured with garlic and floral spices) and a cherry-red fez on their mascot beggar boy. You wouldn't call it cosy, despite some cushioned banquettes, but its minimalism is a magnet for city cafe addicts, and amber lighting softens things at night.
Come at breakfast and you might be eating that bastourma ruffled over thick slabs of sourdough spread with sharp tomato jam, bechamel, then topped with kashkaval (a semi-hard mellow cheese with stretch) and grilled. If it's ale-soaked as stated we can't tell, but it is still a rich-yet-fragrant Turkish rarebit. Breakfast of kings. There are shakshouka eggs too – crispness, squidge and spicy tomato in a bowl – or smashed avocado, because that is now a requisite for cafe menus under Victorian law.
This is smart-casual eating, executed well. All day, any day stuff adhering to the simple Middle Eastern idea that fruit, nuts, labna and cumin make everything better. It's seemingly a cakewalk for chef Gerard Phelan (Lake House, the Argus).
Hummus and baba ganoush are form-perfect dips with wood-fired flat breads, but at $16.90, possibly a deterrent for those who read the menu from the right. Call it country tax. Besides, the "feed me" menu is $55 and a smart choice, even for twos. You will want to jump around the menu, and your table fills up fast a la carte.
Then again, a sweet, earthy, nutty salad of freekeh, lightly roasted heirloom carrots, with slips of roasted almonds, chevre, dates and parsley is a whole meal itself. Likewise juicy and surprisingly light lamb shoulder, served in its anise-forward braising liquor with caramelised quince, slippery Israeli cous cous, and fistfuls of coriander, Persian feta and pomegranate jewels.
Dessert is an excellent spiced panna cotta that tastes exactly like rice pudding sans rice, or a plate of soft dates piped with savoury labne to go with dark muddy coffee.
This isn't a place of high ambitions – they are hardly taking aim at the Lake House crowd – but it is good where it counts. We're talking G and Ts stained with Aperol, hits by the Cure, and an assured team in charge who can drive a short, focused wine list, and seem sensitive to that peculiar insanity of holidayers, furiously determined to relax. They may be slow with the bill, but they always check before taking away a glass, and don't flinch when chunky men in knee-high socks peer suspiciously at the menu before stalking back to the Land Rover.
Oh, and you can also get the wood-fired foot-long pide to take away, including a salty version of a quattro formaggi pizza topped with kashkaval, feta, haloumi and gorgonzola, with a za'atar kicker. Schlep it to the shore of Daylesford lake, maybe with a bottle of Tobias chenin blanc from Wine and the Country, one of the nicest boutique bottle shops in Victoria. That's a recipe for guaranteed holiday success.
Pro tip Take your Turkish pizza to the lake
Like this? Hit the banquet at Rumi, 116 Lygon Street, Brunswick East
Go-to dish Carrot and freekeh salad with almond, raisins, and chevre ($17.90)
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 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best