3649 Frankston - Flinders Rd Merricks, VIC 3916
|Opening hours||Sun-Wed noon-5pm; Thu noon-9.30pm; Fri, Sat noon-10.30pm.|
|Features||Open fire, Views, Accepts bookings, Licensed, Long lunch|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 5989 9011|
A rule of dining law is under attack on the Mornington Peninsula. It states that the closer you get to the ocean or place of interest, the worse must be the food. Seaside restaurateurs have adhered for centuries. So what's Point Leo Estate all about? Here's Victoria's newest and most spectacular sculpture park, with views spanning right over Western Port, and, a restaurant-cellar door manned by one of the best chefs in the country. What an abomination.
The chef is Phil Wood, formerly of Neil Perry's Rockpool/Eleven Bridge and Australia's most wanted chef until being hooked by shopping centre magnates and art philanthropists the Gandel family.
To run the room that holds 110 and necessitates the chefs wear earpieces, they also secured Ainslie Lubbock, whose service has previously lit up your dinner like Christmas at Attica, the Royal Mail and Pei Modern. Her partner, chef Joel Alderson, is Wood's number two in the kitchen. What a team.
And what a view. Up the driveway, past vines, through a waved concrete cave (lined with golf carts to zip VIPs around) you're poured into a vast, arcing restaurant with a cellar door at one end, the dining room to the other, and art and ocean commanding the horizon as far as you can see.
Even when you know that the 50-strong sculpture collection has been decades in the gathering and that it's curated by Geoffrey Edwards, who previously pulled for the NGV, it's something else to stand in the eight-metre, eight-tonne shadow of Jaume Plensa's perspective-bending Laura; to view the ripped horizon through Jeppe Hein's mirror labyrinth and see works of Australian artists Inge King and Lenton Parr set in such beautiful situ.
It's a collection you'd put up with B-grade pizza for. You'd even entertain a '90s-era vegetarian focaccia. Thankfully, you don't have to.
Inside, it's an intentionally restrained room of sandy surfaces, closer to classy canteen than fine diner (with a noise factor making some diners squint). But if tables are bareback, they're still laid with Riedels and Cutipol cutlery. This is "rustic and casual dining" as someone who owns, rather than fangs around at Chadstone, would imagine it.
The same goes for Wood's menu. The opening snacks veer towards high falutin' and good times. Wallaby pies, all sweet meat packed inside a short, curried crust, get excellent zing from bread and butter pickles. Ricotta-polenta croquettes conceal surprise pickled-fennel sparkle beneath a snow drift of caprinella – a mild Main Ridge goat's cheese.
The beetroot pancake, prettily gussied with trout roe and lemon curd, makes for excellent Instagram, but tastiness-wise I'd double down instead on raw tuna cigars given roasty tones from a nori blanket.
Where once Wood plundered Chinatown for inspiration he's driven now by Mornington producers, a wood-fired oven and ocean vistas. It isn't Eleven Bridge on the beach (Wood's bigger moves will be held for the fine diner, opening January). But there's still plenty of bicep being flexed.
The carrot souffle looks pretty showboaty, but the vegetal vibrancy of the moussey dome, licked with a buttery carrot and ginger reduction and royal blue scampi roe is dead on. It's testament to Wood's instincts with seemingly rogue combinations. See also the sweet-umamiful pitch of a sauce containing macadamias, grapes, ginger and flaked nori coating roasted Clarence River prawns.
The prawns are a rare anomaly in a menu with a big 100-clicks thing going on. Note the almost exclusively Victorian wine list that might see you start with nutty cuvee from Hanging Rock, fun from Jamsheed and a bright dolcetto from the team at Best's. Wood's also forging the necessary relationships to push fish, despite the Port Phillip fishing ban. He's found snapper from Bellarine and flathead from Lakes Entrance, which he tans and dresses with another rich macadamia-and-seaweed sauce as a main.
There's also plenty to recommend about the slightly smoky grilled rib-eye with sparkling salsa verde and a round of buttered kipflers. Ditto a bright and breezy union of dehydrated and fresh strawberries with a vanilla anglaise, wearing crisp meringue like a hat. See also the friendly service team happily slinging Mornington pale ales even faced with some slap-faced daytrippers, the dining world's greatest frenemy.
But really it's the full package that's the winner. The Mornington Peninsula just became one big when, not if, proposition.
Pro Tip: Allow time for the full 90-minute sculpture walk. Free for diners or $10 for visitors.
Go-to Dish: Wallaby pies; ricotta dumplings; carrot souffle.