And so to the third and final part of our Pick of the Peninsula round up – the first stop for this post is Red Hill Estate and the adjoining and much-lauded Max’s Restaurant. We rolled up to the cellar door for a tasting, along with a couple of dozen day-trippers, and were guided through the winery’s award-winning pinot grigio, chardonnay and pinot noir bottlings in the cavernous cellar door area. Now, it wouldn’t be fair to criticise one of the region’s big-hitters for being – well – big, but we found ourselves immediately craving the warm welcome and intimacy of some of the smaller places nearby. That said, they serve a decent drop here so we headed though to the dining room, where the floor-to-ceiling glass walls offer unspoilt views over Western Port Bay to Phillip Island – breathtaking and, after a while, we found ourselves thinking that it might be much nicer to be outside and soaking up the scenic panorama than sitting in a overheating, crowded dining room waiting for our food to turn up.
Yes, we arrived at 1pm on the Sunday of a public holiday long weekend, and yes the coach parties and family celebrations were in full swing (young children included, but that gripe is another blog post altogether) but really – nearly an hour between starter and main? Not ok. Staff were friendly enough, and Max (Paganoni) himself was there to wave an affable hello from across the bar, but we couldn’t help but feel that this place is failing to keep up with the standards being set by some of its new (and not-so new) Red Hill neighbours.
Lightly battered calamari – at best, average. The claggy, undercooked batter left a mushy mouth feel that was somewhat reduced by the creamy zing of lemon-drenched rock oysters.
The ones with the fish roe on them had a nice popping sensation to them, and the chardonnay went down a treat with the sparklingly fresh little molluscs. A palate cleanser of watermelon, raspberry and passionfruit was tasty, but sadly signalled the last solids we saw for the next 50 minutes. Hmph.
Mains were good – quality meat, decent veg and good sauce – but nothing to challenge or excite, and the prices charged ($80 for three-course lunch) at this place would (we think) have diners looking for a bit of extra pizazz. We’re not talking fancy foams or liquid nitrogen-dipped desserts, just a bit more creativity.
Roast pork stuffed with leeks, served with broccolini and new potatoes – tasty, what you see on the menu is what you get kind of stuff. Which sadly wasn’t the case with the dukka-crusted lamb (no ‘crust’ in sight, just a few sesame seeds swimming in a dark sticky glaze – flavour fine but not what I was expecting) served with pea and mint puree (have had more flavour in my local chippy’s mushy peas) and baby carrots.
Desserts picked up the standard – blow-torched lemon panna cotta with biscotti crumble and mini meringues, and rich chocolate torte with a generous side of honeycomb and tongue-tingling raspberry sorbet.
If we were to head back here it would be for a glass of wine in one of the beanbags out front – drink in the views and the booze, but feed yourself elsewhere.
Perhaps at Flinders Hotel (see what we did there?) as this large venue has recently reopened (after an extensive overhaul) with Royal Mail Hotel’s Clinton Trevisi and chef Pierre Khodja at the helm. Split into a number of well thought-out areas – from Terminus, the fine dining restaurant that offers a ‘sophisticated fusion of North African, French and local cuisine’ through to The Deck – ‘outstanding service in a relaxed open environment’. The fit-out is great – the Aussie bar half is perfect – a great space with good-looking hipster-cool kids serving great pub grub – while the formal restaurant areas exude understated chic with a subdued colour scheme. While we opted for The Deck, we will definitely be back to check our Pierre’s tasting menu and the soon-to-open accommodation.
On our visit, we ate: house bread and dukkah, local olive oil and tomato salt ($8), roasted chicken and mushroom and arancini with apple aioli (4 rice balls for $9), beer-battered rock flathead with chips and salad ($29), and salt and pepper squid with house tartare ($21). All good, all satisfying, all washed down with great wine and beer – good pub food, well executed. Oh, and a plate of yummy ice cream for dessert.
We found a couple more great evening hangouts the following night in Mornington, where we had pre-dinner drinks at the boudoir-styled Brass Razu – a few people at Red Hill had recommended it, and they weren’t wrong. A relaxed place with great décor and good drinks.
Then round the corner to Counting House, where Max Griffin (of Melbourne’s Bar Humbug) and chef Gavin Ong (ex-Marco Pierre White’s Quo Vadis, London) are taking the sleepy seaside suburb by storm. Beautiful nautical fit out (reclaimed timber and driftwood abound, while signs of the building’s previous incarnation as a bank – vault, pressed metal ceilings and fireplaces – remain), local produce and a great menu make for a lazy evening’s grazing. We opted for scallops, pea puree and crispy carrot in a sweet wine reduction ($17), and pork belly, ginger vinegar, apple puree and braised witlof ($17).
Both tasty and generous, everything you could want from the two stars of the show – well cooked pork and scallops with complementary flavours playing a supporting role.
Then, earthy and meaty herb-crusted rack of lamb with eggplant puree ($34), and the comfort food extravaganza that was pumpkin gnocchi, sautéed green vegetables and Boursin cheese ($23).
A side of chips completed the easy-eating experience. And a lovely geeky dessert for the drive home. We can’t recommend this friendly place enough – be sure to drop in when on the peninsula.
And so there you have it. We came, we saw, we ate. Everything. But we can’t complain. It you are yet to discover the gourmet paradise that is the Mornington Peninsula, then we can’t urge you enough to get there asap. And if you are a regular, how come you didn’t tell us about it sooner?! Eat and enjoy, and just an hour out of the city.