Underbar review

Waldorf scallops.
Waldorf scallops. Photo: Jo O'Kelly

3 Doveton St N Ballarat Central, VIC 3350

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Opening hours Fri-Sat 7pm-late
Features Degustation, Groups, Licensed
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Payments eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard

Ballarat. What's not to love? The gold rush city has grandiose pubs, wide-hipped streets, the medieval Kryal Castle (one-time rave venue, now a live action role player's dream replete with jousting, archery and maesters who keep character even when directing your ladyship to the toilets). Did you miss White Night in Melbourne? It's coming here in mid-March. Do you remember all-you-can-eat Pizza Huts? The dream lives in the city of gold.

It's to this land of great hope and opportunity that chef Derek Boath and his wife Lucy moved to seek what's becoming the twenty-teens' equivalent of a fortune – a lifestyle in which two working parents can actually afford a house and see their child.

That wasn't going to be possible when they were living in New York; Boath pulling 80-hour weeks at Thomas Keller's Per Se for two years; Lucy doing 70 hours as a stockbroker. But then, they also returned to a Melbourne just as expensive. 

Snacks including pork terrine; lavosh and chicken liver parfait.
Snacks including pork terrine; lavosh and chicken liver parfait. Photo: Jo O'Kelly

In 18 months they've managed to get on the property ladder, have a kid and Boath has been able to launch Underbar, a tiny fine diner that seems to defy restaurant physics by serving just 12 souls twice a week so that he and his wife can share parent duty. Eureka.

It helps that Boath has built such a reputation for these dinners – a platoon of snacks followed by five robustly tweezed and seasonal courses – that the $150-a-head degs are booked out a month in advance.

Would you call it a restaurant? It certainly looks the part in its minimalist, Swedish way. There's a pristine tiled kitchen; a length of ashwood as table; a drinks cart heavy-set with Akashi Japanese whisky, and Ballarat's Kilderkin gin (punchy!), nicely served with a dirty StrangeLove tonic – the Prada of mixers right now.

Underbar's dinner party-style dining room.
Underbar's dinner party-style dining room. Photo: Jo O'Kelly

But the experience is more semi-formal dinner party. Kiss your loved one goodbye as they sit opposite you at that long table and say hi to your neighbour, who's closer. Dinner also comes with a soliloquy at every course.

The lesson here is you need to be in it for the food. And Boath makes a compelling case.

You open with lavosh sprinkled with the herb 'n' onion flavours of ranch dressing to scoop up silken chicken liver parfait set over a jammy beetroot base; a sticky, silken, sesame-oiled tartare of king prawns crunched up with daikon, radish and garlic flowers (much improved since it was paired with pork crackling) and a pretty little duo of smoked cream cheese and intense pea puree, separated by trout roe jewels. I cannot work out why a pig head terrine tastes like banana, but the snack bracket sets the scene fairly well.

Lamb with black and white garlic and romesco.
Lamb with black and white garlic and romesco. Photo: Jo O'Kelly

Boath's focus is local and seasonal. His toolbox: rigorous, often classic technique with an edge of play (calling cards of Keller).

Smoky porcini mushrooms in brown butter are topped with a tea and ginger-infused chicken stock for a dramatic, fragrant amuse.

Dish of the night is the first: a sort of Waldorf scallops where the sweet, raw bivalves are speckled in walnut oil, buried in a forest of crisp celery and nasturtium leaves and surrounded with a vibrant moat of cold pressed apple juice. Electric.

Deconstructed lemon meringue.
Deconstructed lemon meringue. Photo: Jo O'Kelly

I have a lot of time for a chilled party of spanner crab, corn – both fresh and as chilled chowder – and crisp brassicas, too.

The wines help. The $40 match has the funky minimal interventionist signature of Aidan Raftery from Persillade all over it. So there's a left-field sauvignon blanc from the Wine Farm; a new-style chardonnay from Garibaldi with so much structure it barely needs a glass; a Lucy Margaux beaujolais. Good times, all. Great range, too.

Which, if you are going to level a criticism at Underbar, it's probably for a different-different-but-sameness that creeps up. You're covering an enormous flavour spectrum. But it's all soft proteins, endless sauces (most poured at table, which can get a little annoying) and fresh elements that are essentially garnish. More texture and less flavour busyness could result in even better times.

But if I'd lose the sticky jus on the chicken ballotine, I can't fault it: breast stuffed with a farce of its leg, gift-wrapped in pancetta and nicely countered by a sweet-savoury party of sumac labna, and poached plums.

And if the ultra-potent final savoury is too much for us in the back stretch (slightly gummy lamb rump swiped with black garlic and served with a white garlic puree, romesco, pickled onions, peppers, and more sticky reduction), it's still objectively a good dish.

So the Coco Chanel rule of dressing up and taking one thing off could apply. I'd be happy with the subtle pre-dessert of an ethereal honey custard and milk foam, and leave the super sweet and bitsy deconstructed lemon meringue. But what's a little excess in Ballarat? It's been a while since the city has struck it this rich.

Drinks: Interesting craft spirits (and mixers). Lots of bangers for nouveau wine fans.

Vegetarian: Dietaries accommodated but advanced warning required.

Cost: $150 a head plus $40 for optional wine match.

Pro Tip: Bookings open on the first of the month and go fast. Get trigger ready.

Go-to Dish: Corn, crab and brassicas; Waldorf scallops.