22 Sackville Street Port Fairy, Victoria 3284
Fun fact about Port Fairy: the little fishing village, an hour west of the 'Bool (aka Warrnambool) was voted the world's most liveable town in 2013, something that gets a solid airing around these parts. A lesser known but more important piece of information is that if you go to the local sports shop and acquire a fishing licence, you can dive into the icy waters and bag yourself up to five abalone, straight off the rocks. You could also walk around the shores, carefully 'Gramming yourself plucking wild rocket and pigface and warrigal greens from the shore. Truly, Port Fairy is a bountiful place to #livefree.
Or you could just head to the Stag, where Ryan Sessions, the chef who brought culinary fame to Port Fairy for his native ingredient cooking at Merrijig Inn - but has been off-grid for the past few years after a stint in Hepburn Springs didn't work out - has already done all of this for you.
Here at Seacombe House, Sessions takes the local mollusc, all buttery umami, and slices it thickly, grills it gently, and serves it smartly with similarly textured but smoky slices of shiitake mushrooms, a bitter-sweet hit of burnt onions and nutty wild rice, a final garnish of roasted sea lettuce claiming it for the sea. It's a helluva reintroduction to the chef who lives and breathes local produce like almost no other chef in the state.
Ten years ago, most people would barely have been able to read the menu. It's an A-Z of native scrub. Here are your Davidson plums and rosella (the flower, not the bird). There's your desert limes, samphire and bunya nuts. If it's native and edible, you'll find it on Sessions' plates.
There's barely a dish that arrives without at least one ingredient you couldn't grab by reaching out the window. It's a simple bowl of flash-fried saltbush leaves that snaps your palate to attention.
If you're smart, you'll back these with a martini made with Kangaroo Island gin from just across the nearby state border - better with olives than a twist, thanks to the savoury nature of the liquor.
Beyond that, it's a la carte (bigger, casual dishes - geared to cater to the multiple tables of suspicious tourists and parents who plug their kids into iPads as soon as they sit) or a five-or-eight course tasting menu for $100 or $140.
A tasting-menu opener is a reboot of the Merrijig's dish of smoked eel (Indigenous protein boost of choice) dressed with buttermilk, horseradish cream, with cucumber and dill. It's rain-on-a-campfire meets sandwiches at the polo.
A kangaroo tartare follows, wrapped in a baby spinach-like warrigal green leaf with a little desert lime dust that (almost) gives it the flavour boost it needs.
Chunks of crayfish swim in a seaweed liquor punctuated with sharp kicks from cumquat, quandong, salty succulents and pungent floral leaves, so it's a magical mystery tour in every bite.
You can taste how hard Sessions and his partner Kirstyn, who runs the floor with friendly ease, have committed to their vision. That day's line-caught flathead fillets arrive under a rustic jumble of macadamia nuts (maybe too many) toasted in butter with a scraggly heap of sea lettuce, finger lime and blood orange paired to the Fighting Gully chardonnay that's got the funk every frontier winemaker is aiming for - a highlight from the entirely regional list.
The only trouble right now is you can't see that vision as clearly. They've dressed the white-washed bluestone room with artwork and contemporary blond tables and chairs, but it all sits upon daggy old maroon pub carpets under wan lighting. Not everyone on the floor is as sharp as Kirstyn when it comes to drinks knowledge.
As far as comebacks go, The Stag feels like a big step on the road back to glory. Sessions is settling back into his groove. When the space comes in line with his cooking, watch out.
Pro tip Book for March when Port Fairy holds its Folk Festival
Go-to dish Abalone, eel and shiitake mushrooms (part of the tasting menu)
Like this? O.My in Beaconsfield is a forage-friendly restaurant worth the road trip; 23 Woods Street, Beaconsfield.
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best