Plenty of restaurants talk a good game about local produce. Everyone says their produce is regional, seasonal, maybe even foraged. But very few restaurants have gone all-in, pushing indigenous ingredients to the centre of their menu. But chef Ryan Sessions, at his new venue, The Stag, has put his money where his mouth is.
The Port Fairy restaurant is one of Australia’s oldest, operating continuously since 1847 (with chefs such as Stephanie Alexander). But the area is one of the world’s oldest food-producing regions; the local Gunditjmara people’s stone-walled eel traps, at around 7000 years old, are among the oldest examples of aquaculture on the planet.
With The Stag, Sessions attempts to condense the region’s ancient and specific food culture into one menu. “We’ve got all these plants and fruits that just aren’t anywhere else in the world. They’ve got a unique Australian flavour. You couldn’t do this food in European countries, or Scandinavian countries, or Asian countries,” he says. “If we want to have an Australian cuisine, we’ve got to embrace all that stuff.”
To that end, everything in the restaurant is grown and produced in Australia. His dishes are built around foraged and locally grown native fruits and berries such as muntries, quandongs, finger limes, desert limes, blood limes, sun limes, Davidson plums and rosella, and seaside greens saltbush, pigface, dune spinach, sea blight and ice plant. He infuses the flowering shrub, Geraldton Wax (not generally known as a culinary ingredient) into a jus and sets it in a sorbet. He massages local abalone and marinates it overnight until it’s tender.
And, it’s no gimmick. Sessions began walking the beach each morning, to collect seaweed and leaves, four years ago when he was the owner of the Merrijig, another heritage venue acclaimed for its menu. While other chefs would have left for a big-city restaurant, Sessions’ connection to Port Fairy was too strong to sever. “We did the going away to do something else, and it didn’t really work,” he says. “I know this area. There’s a bit of me in it, I’m a part of it.”
While still in development, The Stag offers a-la-carte and six-course degustations, with dishes such as local crab, pepper-berry creme, finger limes, samphire, Muntries and bunya-nut cream; celeriac poached in buttermilk and seaweed oil, carrot and parsnip chips, horseradish cream, local seaweeds; and wallaby, native-currant sauce dressed with ice plant, warrigal greens and pig face.
The wine list, curated by Sessions’ wife, business partner and front-of-house manager, Kirstyn, is equally Australian, featuring stand-out bottles from a new generation of natural and small-batch winemakers, such as Adrian Rodda, Architects of Wine and Tasmania’s Kate Hill.
Though much of The Stag’s trade is from out of town – often staying in Drift House, a boutique B&B a couple blocks away – locals are getting into their native tucker, too. “We thought people would screw their faces up at the idea of eating wallaby or native ingredients,” he says. “They’re not to everyone’s palate, let’s face it. But a lot of people have really embraced it.”
22 Sackville Street, Port Fairy
(03) 5568 3229
Tues to Sat 6pm–late
The Stag is closed on Friday 2 October, but open for dinner from 6pm on Saturday 3 October.