15 Wills St Bright, VIC 3741
|Opening hours||Thu-Fri 5.30pm-late; Sat noon-late; Sun 3pm-late.|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||0460 782 642|
It hasn't been a good few weeks for Rachel Reed and Hamish Nugent, the chef-distiller-owners of Reed and Co. in Bright. Fire warnings pinged on their app, telling them and their customers to get out of town. They probably wondered whether the stills that form half of their business, Remedy Gin, would survive. Then, like the rest of the region, they've waited out the deathly quiet weeks.
But you wouldn't know it. This is a hospitality crew that sweats the small stuff, and weathers the big. Reed and Co. is run by the same duo who brought you Tani Eat and Drink. The compact Bright eatery claimed best new regional restaurant in the Age Good Food Guide 2014.
In 2017, the prospect of having their first child, building a gin brand and running Tani while also managing a pop-up on the ski slopes seemed too much.
Three years on, they've sunk their talons into the thirsty spirits market with alpine gins, and brought the magic of Tani back to the floor in an airy former mechanics workshop, now their distillery door.
The same qualities that have made their range of spirits a success – a judicious gathering of local botanicals, and an understanding of when to stop cramming them into the mix – is what defines the high country's best menu to drink gin to.
Speaking of, if starting dinner with a flight of straight spirits seems unwieldy, Reed and Nugent made the smart move of employing people who know how to transform their range into the hits: gin mixed with StrangeLove tonics; an all-Australian Negroni with Imbroglio (a citrus-embittered amaro in place of Campari), or an Aviation, that sky-bright combination of creme de violet, lemon, maraschino and gin, that here stays on the modest side of sweet.
They've also made the transition from cellar door to restaurant smooth with the smart use of systems. The space is vast, mostly brushed concrete, with a daytime cafe, Sixpenny, off to one side. Plush leather cutlery rolls remove at least three trips to the table for waitstaff. Pencils are provided to tick boxes on menus, and the mostly local wines, with some premium French and Italians thrown in, are by the bottle with by-glass options dictated by what the bar wants to pour. Small things, perhaps, but they allow the restaurant to move with a flow that puts diners at ease.
That confident comfort carries through to the concise wood-fired menu, occasionally giving a shout out to Japan and beyond. The Tani pork bun lives again, for good reason. The soft yet textured bao is made to order before swaddling crisp pork belly, pickled cucumbers and rich aioli.
If you're just snacking, bread has an intense malty crust countered by the savoury-sweetness of seaweed butter. Charcuterie is local, as are the pumpkin seeds and olives, which they remix with spent gin botanicals. But go beyond.
A rich dish of barley loosened with shiitake stock is crowned by slow-cooked then crisped goat, boosted with just enough shredded daikon and parsley for it to make sense in summer.
Our quartered, charred savoy cabbage, licked with fermented chilli butter and garnished with pink pickled threads of cabbage, could have yielded more to the flames, but gets the flavours right.
Is there anywhere else like this in Victoria? Where spirits are celebrated alongside a kitchen that can properly smoke a duck? From the serious section (which contains whole trout and chicken) our half bird's flesh is plump and juicy yet the skin has a subtly smoky paper-fine texture.
Are the cucumbers dressed in a burnt citrus sauce something everyone will love? It's extreme, but not misguided. Are the halved, deeply golden potatoes scattered with saltbush, nesting on an aioli made with chicken fat essential? Yes.
Close it out with rich gingerbread ice-cream or a yoghurt sorbet with sorrel granita and strawberries that's as bright as Bright can be.
Vegetarian Half the menu is geared to the food-without-faces inclined.
Drinks Try the gins then move to the local beers and wines.
Cost Small bites $5-$13; medium dishes $12-$22; large $22-$37.
Pro Tip: Bring a designated driver.
Go-to Dish: Steamed bun pork and pickled cucumber ($7).