249 Belgrave-Gembrook Rd Clematis, VIC 3782
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri noon-3pm, 5pm-10pm; Sat-Sun noon-9pm|
|Features||Licensed, Bar, Outdoor seating, Family friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 5968 4037|
If you thought Canberra was a political hornet's nest, you haven't waded into the politics of small Australian towns. The progress society in my home village is so particular, emails are rejected and correspondence must be printed off if it's expected to be read. Someone is often tasked with dropping a hard copy off at each house. My sister sometimes does this. By horse. Progress is slow, but democracy is strong and everyone always has their say.
Things are not this extreme out at Clematis in the Dandenongs, but it still didn't go without notice and vigorous discussion when a group of Melbourne hospitality professionals – Joe Durrant, Mark Protheroe and Steven Nelson, who run the wine-savvy Recreation Bistro in Fitzroy North – took over the local pub.
And fair enough. Melburnians might whinge if the local boozer gets gentrified, but we can often walk 50 metres to the next one. Not as simple once you leave city limits, nor when the pub is also the town's go-to venue for Rotary meetings and most other calendar highlights.
So, not an easy task to tackle. Smartly, the trio did six months of reconnaissance, quietly sitting, sipping and surveying the landscape of the yawning premises with its road-facing public bar and the huge bistro looking out to gardens, at the bottom of which is a tiny, tin shed "station" for Puffing Billy. Despite this, the three have enjoyed an enthusiastic schooling by some local contingents.
While the trio entered the fray with a very clear idea of what they wanted to do (a sharply produced, still undeniably straight-up pub menu), Durrant admits it was his idea to ditch the parma. It was pointed out in no uncertain terms, and letters to management, that this was a mistake.
But with parmageddon behind them (Durrant folded at an emergency meeting and you can now get a house-made parma or schnitzel, properly pan-fried and served with delicately battered chips and a crisp green salad – both on the side), acceptance is slowly seeping into the walls along with the fresh lick of paint.
As an outsider, it's hard to see what's not to love. The makeover is fairly sparse in the enormous bistro, but the details are good – blondwood tables; a few vintage pendant lights and a long central banquet for a soft seating option. There's still a corner nook with crayons for kids, while a big new verandah and some landscaping of the long, sloping gardens is going to make summer a raging time.
And can anyone argue that fennel-dotted house-made pork sausage on silky, satiny potato with lipstick-glossy jus, or a burnished pie filled with duck and mushrooms, is flying in the face of "real pub food"? Aside from an enlivening lick of chilli-herb blitz-up chimichurri on that sausage, these are your classic pub staples done well, done with pride, presented without any flowers, flourishes or other signs of cultural cringe.
That said, veg gets a significant starring role beyond a garden salad and chips. A salty anchovy dip comes frilled with fresh and crunchy witlof leaves and radishes for you to chomp your way into dinner. Vivid stalks of asparagus and fresh peas are pan-licked with butter and lemon, served with a textbook gribiche (a creamed sauce flecked with chopped egg, capers and herbs), and a neat little brickette of buttery puff pastry for crunch.
I don't think punches have been pulled to help the new Paradise fit in, but there are tiny signs everywhere that they're seeking a middle way.
Your gribiche? Billed as egg mayo. Service? A hybrid of counter and table service means your expectations start low, giving the keen-but-green staff the chance to over-deliver – bringing bottles of sparkling from the help-yourself taps if they have a moment – rather than crumbling in peak rushes.
For those who know the pedigree of this wine-savvy team, it's no surprise that the collection here isn't top-line expensive. Instead it's the most interesting stuff you could get for value from around Victoria, France and the Adelaide Hills, with a sprinkling of Burgundies and Northern Rhone stars at the pointy end. Just in case you do want to go big after an exhilarating Puffing Billy ride.
Speaking of, the station at the doorstep isn't a scheduled stop unless you persuade 10 other passengers to come. My advice? Tell everyone there's a knickerbocker glory – a fruity seasonal strata of tangy mousse, blueberries, compotes and ice-cream with a flounce of cream on top – or even a roolio troolio caramel-drenched sticky date pudding like the old days, if only they join your coup.
Tell them there's a paradise where smart people have kept it simple. And in the blink of some years, even die-hard locals will say it's true.
Vegetarian Yes, in the form of salads, soup, sides and snacks, but no big pubby main.
Drinks Wines are local and European, from passionate producers with "skin in the game".
Cost Starters $6-$16; mains $22-$30.
Pro Tip: If you train to Gembrook, walk the pretty rail trail to the pub.
Go-to Dish: Knickerbocker glory, $12.