44 Paringa Road Red Hill South, Victoria 3937
|Opening hours||Lunch daily; Dinner Fri-Sat|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Degustation, Events, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Long lunch, Open fire, Views, Wheelchair access, Bar, Vegetarian friendly, Romance-first date|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 5989 2669|
Is chef Simon Tarlington the next great cult leader? He has something going on. After four years running paddock-to-plate fine diner Highline at the Railway Hotel in Windsor, where you could access a 24-hour bottle shop downstairs and toast marshmallows over flaming pine cones upstairs, Tarlington announced in February that he was heading to vinier climes.
So far, so standard: promising chef takes over winery restaurant, in this case, Paringa Estate. Less normal: not one but three of his kitchen staff have upped sticks, rented a share house and come to the Peninsula with him. His longtime sommelier Eric Wagner, also ex-Highline, is commuting from the city every day.
You could do worse than judging restaurants based on the loyalty their chefs inspire. Big ideas don't make great restaurants – teams of commis chefs willing to suffer a million sea urchin spikes in their service do.
It's quickly apparent what Paringa's chefs are buying into. Tarlington is a graduate of chef Peter Gilmore's produce-worshipping finishing school, otherwise known as Quay. Back at Highline this was evidenced in the fragrant tingle of native mountain pepper, the subversive use of texture to catch your mouth by surprise and interactive interludes that were never too naff.
All of this remains true. Even better, Tarlington has continued to ripen on the vine. Speaking of, where Highline's menu was inspired by the produce grown and raised for the restaurant by its sister farm, now the fruits of the vineyard have expanded that palette.
So the rich, smoky lamb breast bacon that once wrapped a ballotine is now the meaty bandage for a shiraz-soaked prune – devils on horseback kicked into the here, now and hell yeah. It's red wine again playing the sweet secret assassin in a Vegemite sauce for bacon fat-glazed pastry scrolls.
Those snacks form a strong and unapologetic opening bracket for the four- or six- course tasting menu, but beyond this, it's elegance and balance that define the menu. Most of the heft is at the front while you still have the appetite to cope with it.
The surf and turf sees delicately pickled mussels shrouded by a pool of sea urchin custard, a peppery spill of watercress and soft waves of plush, cured wagyu. And while that sounds like a nightmare, it's the first piece of evidence that this kitchen has its shoes tied tight and can do some nimble dancing.
Balance is there again in a dish of barramundi, lightly tightened from a curing, its earthy tones, both innate and infused from being cooked in paperbark, offset by a smoky, sweet and assertive eggplant barbecue sauce.
Back to the team migration for a moment. The Peninsula has been bombarded by big money operations like Jackalope and Pt Leo Estate in the last two years, with the result that trained service staff are worth their weight in truffles. Enter Wagner. Sadly, the somm who has been Tarlington's left hand man for years won't be staying once his equal can be recruited, but his legacy will be the tight team he's been whipping into shape and a list that complements Paringa's stars with either international pours or a local bracket of curious jewels.
The matches make those dishes sing. Paringa's rogue 2011 pinot noir is light enough to dance with that fish. An amphora-finished Quealy friulano with just enough skin contact to cause a scandal is the hero that ducks and weaves around that surf and turf.
Gone are the days when Tarlington's degustation was $60. It's $120 for the full ride, and $90 for the half. But gone too are a lot of the question marks that hung over his early dishes. I still don't love that the wattleseed-rubbed lamb is sous vide and maybe lacking a little expression as a result, but its pairing with al dente quinces, with a handkerchief of pickled pumpkin and a lamb stock infused last minute with eucalypt like billy tea is the light, bright savoury closer more winery restaurants need.
It's a compelling package. Sure, it's a slightly dated room of beige tones and chunky chairs. I can't decide if the table's ornamental pumpkins are beautifully seasonal or Halloween naff. But it's somewhat hard to notice when your table is on fire. With your ethereal dessert of goat's milk parfait sparkling with hints of fennel, paper arrives to jot down your fears and dreams for an at-table marshmallow-toasting burning of the vines.
Gimmicky? Sure, but the ceremonial connection, the creaminess of the chocolate-infused Italian meringue marshmallow ties the package with such a neat bow, even Peter Gilmore might approve. It was always clear Tarlington was going places. He's well on his way and the smart money says you should follow.
Vegetarian On request.
Drinks Paringa Estate's star pinots and syrahs, plus local heroes and interesting internationals.
Cost Four- or six-courses $90 or $120.
Pro Tip: Prime your engine with a wine tasting.
Go-to Dish: Chocolate marshmallows toasted over your burning dreams (part of the tasting menu).