Levantine Hill’s vineyard estate in Coldstream is just like any self-respecting provincial oasis. There’s room for 16 helicopters. There’s $5000-a-night luxury accommodation. Naturally, there’s a private truffiere. And now, there’s a high-end dining destination manned by one of the country’s top restaurateurs.
Set on the hillside in the estate, Ezard at Levantine Hill is an imposing edifice of black steel, apricot-coloured wood and long stretches of glass. The designer is Karl Fender of Fender Katsalidis Architects, the man behind Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art and Melbourne’s Eureka Tower. Divided in to three sections, it houses a cellar door, a degustation-only fine-dining venue and an all-day bistro studded with giant barrels that serve as semi-private booths.
But while the setting certainly makes an impression, what you’re really here for is the food and the booze. Levantine’s owners, Elias and Colleen Jreissati, took the same approach to engaging a restaurateur as they did with everything else on the property. They went straight to Teage Ezard.
“I’ve known Eli for a number of years, and he wanted some dining element at the cellar door,” Ezard says over the lunch we’re eating, seated underneath a golden statue of Kate Moss. “We got in touch and it sounded like a really beautiful concept.”
Regional dining has been in Ezard’s mind since visiting the Napa Valley. “One place that did hit me was French Laundry. That was a magnificent experience,” he recalls. “You go so far into the vineyards to go to a great restaurant like that. It was one of those experiences that’s always lived with me. It resonated with me when I got back and we started talking about this location.”
His concept for Levantine Hill was to replicate the style of his flagship Ezard restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney, but to dial down the Asian influence of their little brother, Gingerboy.
“We’re using a pared-back version of Ezard Melbourne,” the chef explains. “We’ve pulled back the fish sauce, the kaffir lime, the chilli and all those spices and condiments that obstruct the matching of the wine.”
And wine matching is what it’s all about. Unlike most other restaurants, the only bottles on offer come directly from the estate. At the centre of every dish is one of Levantine winemaker Paul Bridgeman’s wines. “It always begins with a bottle,” says Ezard. “For us, we’ve got to really hone in with the food offering on Paul’s wines. It’s a bit different to our other venues where you’ve got a sommelier choosing a particular variety for a particular dish. If Paul’s wines have three or four key notes, we’ll try and nail them with contrasts in the kitchen.”
The winemaker, for his part, is also blending with dining specifically in mind. While the label produces a number of classic Yarra Valley varietals, Bridgeman is increasingly excited by blends, which he believes are more expressive of a particular style. “Blends are on the way back,” he says. “I think a blend of varietals can be a bit more versatile when you’re thinking about food matches, if you can get the strengths of the individual grape variety, their textural component, their bright fruit or their acidity or tannin structure, if you can marry those things it gives you a far broader brush to paint with.”
For Ezard, that palette incorporates local produce such as salmon roe, beetroot and fig from nearby farms, microcresses, herbs and greens such as chickpea shoots, nettle and rocket flowers from the kitchen garden, and high-end Victorian Wagyu and John Dory. “It’s important to get the balance right. We generally work on the hot/sweet/sour/salty balance,” he says. “It’s an Asian influence, but it’s not dominant. For Ezard, there’s more European techniques, craft and skill, but the Asian flavours come in as an overlay.”
For instance, sour is a tool the chef deploys artfully, adding a pinprick of apple yuzu gel and compressed radish pickle to counter the house-cured ocean trout and roe. “You need to have flavours like that which clean it and give it a mouthfeel to get you through the dish,” he says. “It’s important to have them there in the background, but not upfront.”
The signature dining room offers five-and eight-course tasting menus with premium wine-match options. Dishes that might turn up can include a painterly heirloom garden salad with parmesan custard, jamon iberico and little pink clouds of beetroot meringue, or perhaps dark-chocolate cremeux, pear sorbet and candied barley.
The more-casual, all-day dining room is cheaper, but no slouch, either. Dishes such as the expertly done Cape Grim flank steak with a rocket and garden-radish salsa verde make it almost worth taking the more pedestrian option even if you’ve arrived by chopper.
What’s obvious in every detail of Levantine Hill is the ambition. From the diamond-tipped drills that bore holes for the grapevines, to the exhaustively trained floorstaff, these guys aren’t interested in half measures. Bridgeman puts it succinctly, if saltily: “It’s probably not fit to print, but I always say that the more fucking around, the better the wine,” he admits. “With the amount of fucking around we do, it can’t help but be good.”
Levantine Hill is open Monday to Sunday for lunch and dinner at 882 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream.