Provenance review

Provenance restaurant in Beechworth.
Provenance restaurant in Beechworth. Photo: Colin Page

86 Ford Street Beechworth, Victoria 3747

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Opening hours Fri-Mon 5.30pm-8.30pm
Features Accepts bookings, Accommodation, Degustation, Gluten-free options, Licensed, Open fire, Romance-first date, Vegetarian friendly
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Michael Ryan
Seats 42
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 5728 1786

Michael Ryan, long-time Japanophile, science nerd and king of Victoria's north, has delivered a thoughtful, technically brilliant Japanese menu from a grand old Bank of Australasia building in Beechworth for 12 years.

The past two years? Utter doozies. Summer trade of 2019 was lost to bushfires. As a dining destination on the border, the restrictions cut off metro Melbourne from regional Victoria, and locked out NSW, robbing the restaurant of its core customers. And now the latest lockdowns.

But this isn't a story of COVID crisis. Plot twist: the pandemic has made Provenance better than ever.

Kangaroo, watermelon, rose, cherry and umeboshi.
Kangaroo, watermelon, rose, cherry and umeboshi. Photo: Jana Langhorst

Facing endless months without service last year, Ryan and his team set about making the spicy, citrusy condiment, yuzu kosho, and an entire range of bitter liqueur amaros, which are due to be released any minute. It was time exceedingly well spent.

After 18 months of blood, sweat, tears, pickling and fermentation, dinner now takes the form of four waves of bento-style courses to best showcase his myriad miso-cured pickles, kimchi, and puffy balls of mushroom tofu.

For those who want to live and die in the snack section of menus, or resent the interruptions that come with doing a degustation, or if you merely share Ryan's fervent obsession with stunning ceramics, it's a dream come true.

Ichiyaboshi-style calamari.
Ichiyaboshi-style calamari. Photo: Supplied

Round one might deliver gentle miso-cured cucumbers and that kimchi, with a serious sting in its tail.

Calamari has been prepared ichiyaboshi-style, which means overnight-dried, a method of dehydrating and concentrating fish before grilling it. Served with Kewpie mayo, the squid becomes intensely addictive jerky.

There's a crisp-shelled, fluffy ball of fried mushroom tofu, showered in salt with a meaty, smoky edge from smoked dried tuna, aka bonito flakes, or katsuobushi.

House-made kimchi.
House-made kimchi. Photo: Jana Langhorst

Or the internet-breaking star: a two-bite battered blood pudding with Bull-Dog tonkatsu sauce.

The good times are plentiful in this more flexible format. While it is just four waves replacing an eight-course degustation of larger composed dishes, you get 18 bite-size insights into Ryan's philosophy.

A fillet of Harrietville trout has been cured in shio koji, a seasoning with active enzymes from koji rice, bringing out sweetness and umami. This is brushed with kanzuri, a fermented chilli and yuzu sauce a year in the making, before being torched until just set and finished with fresh pops of roe.

Silken tofu, prawn, spring onion and shio koi.
Silken tofu, prawn, spring onion and shio koi. Photo: Jana Langhorst

Likewise, despite the huge reduction in interactions, service isn't lacking. If anything, it creates space for conversations to gain traction.

Meanwhile, longtime manager Damian Moylan is still roving the floor with eagle eyes on glasses. He's in total command of the restaurant's famously impressive sake collection featuring malty red rice numbers and floral unfiltered drops, and a wine list that has been dedicated to hyperlocal producers.

Back to the plates, the good times keep rolling with bright bites such as kingfish sashimi with a bracing blast of house-made ponzu, and apple salad with a high ping of shiso leaf.

There might be deconstructed Brussels sprouts, the outer leaves fried to chips, the hearts shredded to a fresh little slaw.

There are a few slips of chashu (Japan's version of the glossy Chinese-style barbecue pork), and plush, crimson, cured duck ham with fermented apricot to scythe the salt.

Maybe there will be thick, slippery hand-cut udon slithering through miso butter and dashi, or perhaps gently crunchy lacto-fermented cubes of pumpkin (cured in a salt brine), showered in a hail of seaweed-and-sesame furikake seasoning.

Many of these projects were new for Ryan last year, but his background in organic chemistry has clearly come into its own.

From a standing start, he has created eight versions of the bitter Italian digestif amaro, including a deeply savoury version featuring celery, tomato, beetroot and carrot, like a boozy version of V8 veg juice.

There is the liquid summer sip of golden yuzucello, made with that floral Japanese citrus, through to the digestif-in-chief, made with quassia bark and artichoke, among other ingredients, that is so bitter it will make your toes curl.

Before The Troubles, Ryan and partner Jeanette Henderson gave the grand, high-ceilinged rooms a makeover to bring modern comfort to the experience. They sweat the small stuff. But they sweat the big stuff more.

This has always been a restaurant that could stand by the name above the door. From the Ovens Valley yuzu to the cherries that become part of a bittersweet granita (part of your dessert alongside sweet mochi), "provenance" really means something here. Go. As fast as you legally can.

Drinks: An extensive sake list backed by all Victorian wines, and house-made amaros.

Pro Tip: Follow social media for a Melbourne Food and Wine Festival event starring four Melbourne chefs, including Michael Ryan.

http://www.theprovenance.com.au/