79 Main St Gembrook, VIC 3783
|Opening hours||Wed-Sun 12–10pm ; Mon-Tue Closed|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Degustation, Family friendly, Groups, Licensed, Lunch specials, Outdoor seating, Private dining, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Chef||Mauro Callegari, Manuel Santeiro|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 5968 1110|
Drive through the Mullum Mullum tunnel, beyond breeze tag beeps and past road signs warning motorists of the perils of bushfire, horse riders and kangaroos and you reach the township best known as the terminus for Puffing Billy. And leave behind any preconceptions you may have about Dandenongs dining in zone 3. The Independent is about to change them.
Open since September 3, this cool Argentinian dining hall slash bar slash beer garden is the combined vision of the pottery-making Gordon family and tree-changing chef Mauro Callegari, who has spent the past few years by the beach at True South.
They've smartened up a dilapidated former hardware store on Gembrook's main drag, adding texture and detail to the huge hangar, which has exposed timber rafters and polished concrete floors. A long stool-lined bar runs down one wall, opposite a lively open kitchen, and there's a big roller door at the back, which will crank up in warm weather so people can wander through to the beer garden to sample the neat cerveza list, which includes a house lager custom-brewed by Coopers.
Saturday night, week two, and it's a full house. It's been booked out since lunchtime the previous day, confides a waiter – customers, who heard about the restaurant in the beauty salon, have come from Mount Evelyn, half an hour's drive away..
Timber tables are set with sturdy stoneware plates embellished with a line drawing of tango dancers. Like all the stylish crockery here, they're from the owners' family company, Robert Gordon, which supplies bespoke tableware to the likes of Vue de Monde, Grossi Florentino and Pope Joan.
The menu concept – stop me if you've heard this one before – is based around shared dishes in various sizes, with no entrees or mains as such. It's influenced by the food of Argentina but Callegari has tumbled in Creole, Spanish, Italian and North African ideas, arriving at a list that's all killer, no filler. There's also a modestly priced wine list with a focus on Victorian bottles and several Argentines, maxing out at $62 for a Barossa shiraz.
Ten picada (dishes to pick at) start things off, augmented tonight by two additions. If the mozzarella croquette special doesn't join the permanent list pronto, I'll go he for chasey. Cheese deep-fried in crumbs with a wedge of lemon and a warning about the molten filling: what's not to love? Another picada brings small, plump house-made chorizo sausages (fresh, not dried) draped in strips of roasted red capsicum, followed by crumbed logs of morcilla (black pudding) stacked on chickpea puree, shaved shallots and spring onions providing cover.
If "Argentine food" conjures images of barbecued beef lashed with garlic, forget that preconception too. There's only one "bife" dish among the bigger plates, a 350 gram sirloin with mustard-dressed cos and Pyengana cheddar. Others include tender pork belly shaped into a crumbed sausage, atop a robust white corn and pumpkin stew, and chicken with sweet corn and palm heart.
But some of the best eating is among the seven huerta (garden) dishes. One, alarmingly dubbed "burnt market vegetables", is a careful melange of textures and colours: smooth pickled mushrooms, crunchy kale, roasted fennel, bright pops of pomegranate. But the dish of the night is zanahorias (that's carrots to you), lightly pickled and roasted, dressed with smoked maple syrup and chilli, and scattered with chunks of candied peanuts and coriander seeds. It smells amazing and tastes even better.
Desserts cover the three key categories: chocolate, cream and fruit. Namely, tiramisu, chocolate and lemon crumble (chocolate-caramel mousse, lemon curd and crumbled fig and anise bread, served cold), and manzanas, roasted apples with a drizzle of dulce de leche and house-made dulce de leche ice-cream. They're good but if you're tossing up between another serve of vegetables and dessert, go the vegies.
Locals have already embraced The Independent's many uses: lads in jeans and hoodies drink beers at the bar, young families take the early shift, friends gossip at a big round table as they work through the menu. Some even return for weekend breakfast. So here's my prediction: this Gembrook gem will be to food tourists what Puffing Billy is to gunzels. All aboard.
The best bit: The savvy fitout.
The worst bit: The distance from Melbourne.
Go-to dish: Smoked carrots with chilli and peanuts.