There’s a weathered “DIAL 000” emergency sign by the side of the road as you drive into Forrest. A tiny, laidback town, population 170, it’s hidden in the expansive foothills of the Otway Ranges, far from Melbourne two hours away. As well as a pub, cafe, general store and restaurant-microbrewery, Forrest is home to one of the area’s consummate gastronomical wonders, Bespoke Harvest.
The restaurant has gained a quasi-cult following over the last couple of years. Emma and Peter Ashton, who also run the Forrest Guesthouse in the same building, brought on chef Simon Stewart in 2014 to run what was then a cafe. Stewart, who previously worked in kitchens including the now-closed – but once celebrated – Torquay Middle Eastern tapas restaurant Scorched, was taking a break from cooking at the time after the arrival of his second child, and was managing a pet food store in Colac. The timing was right to get back in the game.
Not wanting to alienate the mainstay clientele, Stewart initially kept the menu the same – mostly pies and pasties. But the Ashtons were happy for him to do his own thing, however obscure.
“It’s only recently that we’ve got to the point of what we set out to do,” says Stewart.
The degustation-style lunch and dinner menu changes daily, and often involves as many as 12 dishes (which can take around two hours to get through). It’s a palpable contrast to the otherwise austere and unassuming 30-seat space, filled with warm second-hand wood furniture that the Ashtons conveniently nabbed from the building’s outgoing tenant – a bric-a-brac store – when they moved in 2012.
During the warmer months, you can eat outside in their sprawling, verdant backyard garden. In the far back corner, Stewart maintains a prolific fruit-and-vegetable patch, growing wonders like big red radishes and native pepper leaf. There’s also a small greenhouse turning out things like beetroots and cayenne chilli. Stewart says around 30 per cent of the restaurant’s ingredients come from the garden. “Sometimes up to 90 per cent, for a couple of weeks.”
Back inside, Stewart’s kitchen is like a Russian countryside dacha: cluttered with jars of pickles and ferments and preserves everywhere, each with little dates and notes scribbled on them. A lot of it comes from the garden, like Stewart’s pickled rhubarb – which he sometimes serves on top of grilled goat’s milk haloumi along with another of his jarred oddities, brined bunya nuts. He’s also recently put together a batch of lightly carbonated quince kefir (similar to kombucha), which is offered at the start of each meal with lemon, dry vermouth and gin. (Yes, it’s a Kefirtini).
Lunch begins with a starter spread of deep-fried flaxseed chips with walnut aioli; shanklish goat’s cheese balls coated in burnt pepperbush leaves; and marinated olives. A tasty prelude to the next six courses (each involving up to three dishes), which emerges from the kitchen in an even and well-crafted tempo. And each seems to have a little story to go with it.
For course two, Stewart spent the morning roaming through a damp and mossy pine forest 20 minutes out of town, picking around 30 saffron milk cup mushrooms, which he uses for a base in his pork and artichoke soup. (Also used for the stock, a handful of dead pine needles he also found that morning.)
Mushroom foraging takes skill, and Stewart is careful to leave the stems in the ground so they have a chance to grow back. He also knows which ones are edible. There are hundreds of varieties that grow wild in forests like this, and most of them, like the death cap, are poisonous. Stewart, who uses wild ingredients for about 30 per cent of his cooking, says every year he hears of inexperienced foragers getting sick or dying in the area.
“It’s sort of become pop culture to pick mushrooms,” he says. “[They’re] either good for you or [they’re] not.”
For course number three, Stewart serves lacto-fermented kale with a sprinkling of sweet but well-balanced pistachio and cashew brittle. The same course involves what can only be described as Cape Otway’s answer to the German wurst plate: chorizo sausage, pickled fennel sauerkraut and a punchy homemade seeded mustard.
Parallels can be drawn between Bespoke Harvest and its stately neighbour 20 minutes up the road, Brae. For one thing, they both grow a lot of their own food. But you’d be wrong to cast Bespoke Harvest as Brae’s understudy. Apples and oranges. (Be it of a comparable quality). If anything, as Stewart admits, stronger similarities can be made with proto-Brae, when it was George Biron and Diane Garrett’s Sunnybrae restaurant and cooking school (Dan Hunter took over the space in 2013).
In fact, Hunter and his crew are big fans. According to Brae manager Julianne Bagnato, Bespoke Harvest is their “go-to place for a long lazy lunch, and to take visitors to the region.” They even had their 2015 Christmas lunch there.
“Although they’re technically in another town, we really consider ourselves neighbours,” Bagnato tells Broadsheet. “They opened about a year after Dan and I opened Brae and since then, we’ve spent many a long afternoon in their shady garden in summer, or in front of the fire in winter, sampling Simon’s dishes, which are always local, fresh and super tasty.”
It’s evident that Stewart believes deeply in this locale. If he hasn’t grown or foraged it himself, most ingredients can be traced within a small radius. Course number six, for instance, is a rich and buttery slab of pork belly that Stewart picked up from his mate’s farm in Barongarook (near Colac). It’s served with a moscato jelly made from berries that he procures from a jack-of-all-trades horticulturist named Wally Hannam, who runs a berry farm down the road.
Stewart visited the orchard this morning before his mushroom forage, inspecting Hannam’s latest offerings of berries, honey, apples, figs, and basically everything else he can grow on his small three-acre lot.
“He’s always got something on the grow,” Stewart says with a smile.
Weekend bookings are essential.
16 Grant Street, Forrest
(03) 5236 6446
Fri to Sat 10am–8pm
Sun to Mon 11am–4pm (lunch only)
Closed in August