Chocolate & Spice

chocolate, spice and the other pleasures in life

Monday, November 27, 2006

Another lazy weekend away

The lovely view from a lookout on Arthur's Seat of the Mornington
Peninsula - Sorrento where we are headed is located around the curve

A couple of weekends ago, A and I drove down to the Mornington Peninsula to spend part of the weekend with friends from Singapore. As always, we will happily take up any excuse to see a different part of Victoria and this is a lovely one indeed. It has many wineries, great restaurants, lovely sea views, quaint townships that straddle the divide between country and city very well (since they are mostly well-equipped with fantastic bakeries, coffee joints and boutiques).

Since our friends were staying at Rye, we decide to stay close by at Sorrento, which has a lovely beach-side location, plenty of interesting shops and a long beach front for walks. Unfortunately, by the time we reach Sorrento, I'm scarcely fit to walk anywhere much less check out any shops! It was as much as I could do to make some small talk with our host, John, at Dougal's B&B while A attends to all the checking-in matters and when I could finally crawl into bed for a snooze, I slept blessedly for an hour. All this because of a splendid afternoon lunch at the Vines of Red Hill....

Vines of Red Hill

Lunch at the Vines was the big highlight of our weekend, other than catching up with our friends of course! One of my invaluable resources here has been the 2007 Age's Good Food Guide (to Melbourne and regional Victoria); it's helped us plan our trips around Victoria, taking into account which restaurants are along the way. I would also have bought the Foodie's Guide to Melbourne & Regional Victoria 2007 but on flipping through, realised that I already knew many of these shops. We've been quite fortunate that our neighbourhood has many of the great food places/shops/purveyors listed inside. So when the Good Food Guide listed Vines as the only Chef's Hat rated restaurant on the Mornington Peninsula, we decided a visit should be on the cards.

The view from the restaurant terrace

Situated in the vineyard area of Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula, the Vines overlooks neat rows of hanging vines and is ringed with wild lavendar. It's a lovely place for lunch especially out on the terrace on a sunny day and I can imagine it would look beautiful at night with lots of candles flickering. Unfortunately, the Vines was booked out for a wedding the day we got in so we had to settle for lunch, which worked out quite well with our plans in any event since we would only be meeting Val and Justyn on Sunday instead. Certainly, it would have been quite perilous to drive back to Sorrento after dinner since we had to traverse windy roads past Arthur's Seat (the kind with near 360' pinturns!!) and these are roads for clearheaded drivers, which we weren't well... not after we had such a wonderful lunch at the Vines!

From the word "go", lunch was a close to 3 hour long session of indulgence. Chef Steve Davidson's food is beautifully presented, in generous but not overflowing portions, and delights with every mouthful. However, because the portions looked just right and each bite wasn't cloying or overly rich, we had underestimated the capacity of our stomachs! After finishing the entrees and the mains, we thought we could manage a dessert each and that was the absolute killer leaving both of us a little glassy-eyed albeit nicely sated. Here's what we had:


After we order, our server brought out a bowl of freshly baked bread (really yummy stuff!) and a trio of salted butter, olive tapenade and light fruity olive oil, the latter being locally grown in the Mornington Peninsula.

That day was turning out to be a rather hot day so we decided to skip the soup on the menu(although butternut pumpkin soup is a favourite of mine) and order something else.

A decided on the spatchcock, which came with its roasted breast with livers, foie gras and herbed brioche gratin and rolled leg ballotine with rocket, together with truffle infused polenta and port-reduced shallots. This was simply yummy - the smell of the truffle subtly whets one's appetite for the spatchcock, which is very nicely done (not too dry as smaller fowls tend to be if overcooked). The polenta had the nice texture and almost similar taste to very good whipped potatoes and was perfect sopping up the jus on the dish. A of course, was delighted by the generous nugget of foie gras nestled in the polenta and just as I thought he was going to polish it off, had the presence of mind to leave me half of it to try. That took some self-control since he simply loves foie gras (to the horror of my mom)! A had the Vines' house label shiraz, which robust flavours was the perfect complement to the intense flavours of his entree.

My dish seemed rather simple in comparison, certainly with none of the complex flavours that A's had. However, executed well, oysters are the perfect starting point for any meal and the chef definitely got this dish right. While I'm not usually a fan of oysters (preferring to have just 1 or 2 and not half a dozen), this dish sounded light and cool for the hot afternoon. Freshly shucked, the 6 Coffin Bay oysters were served with lime marinated yellow fin tuna, Yarra Valley salmon caviar and avocado and herb salsa. The accompaniments to the oysters didn't overpower its natural briny taste and instead added depth and interest to each bite - each caviar roe bursting with flavour as you chew the oyster, the lime adding a slight tart taste to the overall sweetness of the avocado and tuna. The Vines house label Gewurtztraminer, being light, fruity and slightly sweet, was a lovely accompaniment to the oysters.

By now, A and I have these slightly blissed out looks on our faces, and when our server comes over, she smiles when she sees we have mopped up every scrap of our dishes and receives our effusive praises graciously. Thankfully, she allows some time to lapse before bringing out our mains so A and I have time to take in the scenic views of rolling vineyards, wildflowers and lavendar bushes and catch up on the events of the week.


When our server brings forth the mains, A is almost hopping with delight at the supremely large portion of the rib eye on his plate. Generously portioned, his char-grilled Mornington Peninsula grain fed rib eye came with a double potato and prosciutto stack, green beans, local horseradish cream and a light shiraz reduction. Simply done, but very effective on the taste scale, a lot of the credit must go to the chef for using fresh local produce and bringing out the best of each item.

I had decided earlier to order the duck breast, which would be served pink and comes with baby beetroot, cress and walnut salad, butter beans, corn and duck leg pancake and a Jasmine tea reduction. This is superb - ordinarily, my appetite for very rich dishes is a small one and I don't always eat the entire duck breast, preferring just to pick off someone's plate or have it as an appetizer instead. This time, I polish off my plate (with the exception of several pieces of duck reluctantly surrendered to A) and mopped up every scrap of jus with the flavourful duck slices. Although it comes slightly overdone, the pieces of duck breast are tender and juicy and sop up the Jasmine tea reduction perfectly well. I liked the reduction in particular (a not unusual combination with duck given that there is the classic Chinese tea-smoked duck) and how the reduction only had a faint hint of Jasmine tea.


By the time we finish off our mains, we are both slightly stuffed and definitely pondering if dessert is a good idea. One look at the menu and greed takes over prudence - I can't resist trying the slow baked chocolate tart with passion fruit ice cream and pistachio biscuit and since I refused to share mine with A, he chooses the local apple and puff pastry tart with malt cream and Red Hill honey ice cream. Both are the perfect end to our lovely meal. The dark chocolate tart in particular, gives an intense shock to the system with each mouthful and the slightly tart passionfruit ice cream offsets the richness of the chocolate.

A's apple puff pastry tart is really good as well and lends credence to the saying that sometimes, the simplest things turn out the best. I often wish my puff pastry would turn out as nice and flaky as this one, but I guess that's why there are pastry chefs and there are home cooks like me! We leave the Vines with some reluctance to dispel the magic woven by the food, the peaceful setting and the perfect weather - too often, we have been caught out by the weather on our trips out, which mars slightly an otherwise lovely experience, but today, we are lucky on all counts.

Owing to our heavy lunch, dinner that night is a simple fish and chips from the chippie shop in Sorrento after spending the evening walking the Sorrento foreshore and catching the sunset. We play Trivial Pursuit in our B&B after and retire early for the night.

The next day, we enjoy a lovely breakfast and have a good time chatting with the other couples at the breakfast table. In what is becoming a common occurrence so far, we rose from the table quite late at 11 am (and A and I had been the first ones at 830am too!) and quickly clear off to meet Val and Justyn for lunch at Stillwater at Crittendon in Dromana.

Again another lazy afternoon, but this time, we go easy on the food (mainly just entrees and desserts) and instead polish off 3 bottles of very good sauvignon blanc. After all, the focus this time was on catching up with our friends and 3 hours go by really quickly before they have to scoot off to view a house down at Portsea and we arrange to meet at the National Golf Club at Cape Schank for coffee with ocean views later on in the afternoon.

With a couple of hours free, A and I go check out the various produce places and load up on locally produced apple juice, first harvest cherries and Desiree potatoes. Visiting produce farms and sampling their wares in each region we visit is one of my favourite activities, and recalls to mind my childhood holidays with my parents spent picking strawberries and visiting orchards. We also visit the Gordon Studio Glassblowers with very lovely sculptural glass pieces and with very little time remaining before we have to drive to Cape Schank, we stop by the Red Hill Art Gallery to browse the pieces. The friendly owner offers to show us his farm and before we know it, we are taken to see his very very cute alpacas and A has a go at feeding them. One alpaca in particular catches our eye, it looking very much like an Ewok and for the most part, they are docile and relatively friendly (with A at least who is holding the feed) although they do occasionally spit and hiss and kick at each other.

We end off a lovely weekend trip taking coffee with Val and Justyn at the National's clubhouse overlooking the putting greens with the spectacular ocean views in the background playing off the setting sun.

The all-important contact details:

Vines of Red Hill
150 Red Hill Road, Red Hill Mornington Peninsula
Tel: (03) 5989 2977

Chef's Hat - 1 with a rating of 15/20
Definitely call ahead (suggest at least 1 or 2 weeks in advance) to reserve a spot as this place seats just 80 and fills up quickly for the prime Saturday night bookings. I had called the week before and was told that Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon were fully booked. Also, as this is a popular wedding venue, there may be nights which the restaurant does not open to the public either. The dishes we had were from the menu for the 17th to 19th November so next time you visit, there is likely to be something new!

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