The Yarra Valley, a cruisy hour’s drive north-east of Melbourne, is Victoria’s oldest wine region – but it’s also brimming with excellent restaurants and food and drink producers. Alongside specialty cheesemakers, refined eateries with pedigree, pioneering, produce-driven diners and one of the country’s best gin distilleries, you’ll also find idyllic off-grid accommodation and culturally significant art galleries (some with striking views). There’s even a new shuttle service to safely ship you between them all.
Building on that already-abundant itinerary, these four new eateries will help keep you fuelled between wine tastings and activities.
In a historic former bank in Yarra Glen, new bistro-cafe Heartswood’s fit-out is inspired by the original architecture of the building, which dates back to 1880.
A cool palette is balanced by warmer elements such as hardwood tabletops, an emerald-tiled bar, naked brickwork and an ornate fireplace.
“I wanted to it to feel like you were in someone’s lounge room, eating and drinking really well,” says Matt Binney, who opened Heartswood with his partner Bianca Leach in September. “Somewhere you can just pop into.”
Binney was formerly head chef at the now-closed down-to-earth fine diner Merricote, and that European influence carries across here in refined, lively dishes that occasionally nod to Asia – a little miso here, a little soy there – and incorporate plenty of fermentation.
“I really like texture,” Binney tells me. “I like to let the ingredients speak for themselves.”
The chef makes his own barbeque and tomato sauces, chutneys, pickles and relishes, and churns his own butter – using cream from St David’s Dairy in Fitzroy – that goes great on a house-made crumpet. For a lazy Sunday morning brunch, settle in for spiced pain perdu (“lost bread” in French) – day-old bread reincarnated as French toast and served with ginger curd, candied macadamia nuts and caramelised pear. The aptly named Obligatory Avocado Dish is whipped avocado, Meredith goat’s curd, kale and furikake – a Japanese seasoning made from spices, seaweed and dried fish – on sourdough.
At night, start with the lamb tartare with smoked-mussel emulsion and fried saltbush, or the savoury brioche doughnut stuffed with kombu-braised oxtail. Then move onto smoked-eel lasagne made with Victorian Silver Lake eels, kohlrabi in place of pasta sheets, bechamel and parmesan.
Drops such as Mac Forbes’s Spring riesling reveal a local prejudice on the wine list, but there are plenty of options from further afield, too. That lamb dish pairs well with a 2015 Ludovic Engelvin grenache-mourvedre blend from France. For something more budget-friendly, try the house chardonnay. It’s made specially for the eatery by local winemaker Chris Bendle.
In February this year, chef Paul Cooper – previously co-owner and head chef at Sydney’s Bishop Sessa, and chef at Abac in Spain and Pied à Terre in London (both of which have two Michelin stars) – moved home to Victoria and took over the existing Bianchet Winery. He’s converted it into two distinct eateries: the first a relaxed pizzeria, the second a formal 30-seat dining room called Fable. Fable has huge windows overlooking Bianchet’s vines, and stories thread through the space, from the Hemingway-inspired cocktail menu, to a little book of tales that accompanies the degustation menu.
Some of the produce comes from Bianchet’s kitchen garden, and the rest is sourced nearby. Dishes are frequently delivered to the table by Cooper himself, who’ll discuss the ingredients and his inspiration with diners.
“I want to create an experience that people always remember,” he says, reminiscing about a scallop dish he once ate in Copenhagen, which inspired the marinated scallop, confit fennel and burnt lime dish here.
Yarra Valley Berkshire pork comes with roasted pumpkin, melon and a fenugreek, mustard and champagne dressing. The melon is brined and wood-grilled, but the cut of pork will always vary, as it arrives in the kitchen as a whole pig. “The butternut pumpkin is thinly sliced, frozen and thawed out,” Paul tells me. “This breaks the fibres down, like reverse cooking.”
Wines cover Yarra Valley heavyweights (Yeringberg, Soumah) alongside more boutique drops.
Next door, Bianchet Pizzeria and Bar (currently closed for renovations and reopening mid-December) makes good use of the outdoor space overlooking the vines. There’s handmade pasta, and woodfired pizzas such as margherita and capricciosa, but for the brave there’s an eye-wateringly spicy pizza topped with the infamous Carolina Reaper chilli, fior di latte, mushrooms, salami, prosciutto and parmesan. A $50 voucher is on offer for anyone who can finish it.
No. 7 Healesville
No. 7 is a winery restaurant in a converted warehouse in Healesville, just over the road from Four Pillars Gin.
With soaring ceilings, rustic barn doors, vintage windows and an imported 1860s olive press, the 38-seater opened in late 2018 and is the newest project from the Frazer family – parents Vonnie and Steve and their two sons Ben and Ryan. The family is also behind nearby cafe-provedore Meletos and dining and events space Stones of the Yarra Valley.
Executive chef Joel Bowers is plating up fare that’s in line with the family’s other venues, but decidedly more laid-back. Choose from pork and duck rilettes with pickles and sourdough; green harissa yellowfin tuna; and flatbread with spicy ‘nduja, caramelised onion and labneh. For dessert, the apple and rhubarb pie comes with vanilla ice-cream and salted caramel.
“Our focus is on really good quality, homely dishes,” says Ben Frazer, No. 7’s marketing and events manager and another member of the family.
The wine list is a well-balanced mix of local and international drops, with a focus on small-scale boutique labels such as Utter Wines, which started out as a few short rows out the front of owner Adrian Utter’s property, and is now a biodiverse three-acre farm producing pinot, shiraz and riesling grapes.
Behind the restaurant is an event space where you can check out free live music on the first Friday of every month, when musicians play among the wine barrels.
400 Gradi Yarra Valley
400 Gradi owner Johnny Di Francesco started his pizza journey with a tiny Brunswick East eatery, but today it has siblings in Essendon, Ringwood, at Crown Casino and internationally, from the Middle East to New Zealand.
Now the award-winning pizzeria has a new outpost at Rochford Estate wintery. The space is decked out with blond plywood, steel beams and concrete finishes, with floor-to-ceiling glass panels looking out over rolling hills, and a retractable roof to let even more sun in when the weather is right.
Rochford Wines executive chef Raki Andriana is cooking traditional woodfired pizza – including that famous margherita that saw Di Francesco crowned World Pizza Champion in 2014 – that’s charry and chewy after just 90 seconds in a 400-degree Marana Forni oven.
The Diavola is topped with sweet San Marzano tomatoes and creamy, rich fior di latte, spicy salami and peppery rocket, and the Quattro Formaggi has fior di latte, Grana Padano, Emmenthaler and gorgonzola. Beyond pizza, there’s salumi and fresh pasta, and for dessert a plate of three cannoli (vanilla, pistachio and ricotta).
Wine-wise, there’s a predictable amount of Rochford drops, and a few from sister winery Toolangi. The light fruit of a Rochford ’18 Estate rosé pairs well with the classic margherita, and calamari fritti suits a glass of the ’16 Isabella’s Blanc de Blanc sparkling, which has hints of apple, almond and citrus.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on November 8, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication. Additional reporting on 400 Gradi by Stephanie Vigilante.