OK, I admit it. I’ve been harbouring a truckload of schadenfreude about the Mornington Peninsula. When I began reviewing 20 years ago, the playground of Melbourne’s glitterati and plain rich suffered a restaurant scene that was mostly just passable and occasionally laughable.
And that was just fine with this little black duck (bitter, moi?).
But the dial has turned the other way and in 2022 the peninsula is punching above its weight in gong-laden restaurants, sometimes with wineries attached, along with fancified pubs, American barbecue joints, cool little cafes and all ports in between.
Even its southernmost point now boasts a restaurant that justifies the use of petrol above $2 a litre. Cape Restaurant is the new fine diner at the RACV Cape Schanck Resort. You read right: RACV resort fine diner.
A contradiction in terms? No longer, the RACV mavens can chuckle, thanks to a $135 million investment, a Wood Marsh design that looks like an enormous, rusted steel fidget spinner, and a cunning reliance on the fact few want to drive into the dark to Pt Leo Estate after 18 holes of golf.
But while we have the RACV’s captive audience to thank for giving them reason to fly the degustation flag out here in the wilds, it also requires concessions to a certain demographic of traveller.
In the case of chef Jordan Clavaron, it means writing a menu that describes snails as “land molluscs” to avoid people’s horror at eating creatures they’re more accustomed to crushing beneath their gardening clogs.
Yes, he did. And yes, it worked. The snail/land mollusc is an earthy support player for a fat tile of John dory cooked in a kombu broth into tight-fleshed lusciousness, a glistening truffled sauce and discs of celeriac tarting the whole thing into the visual razzle that’s something of a Cape signature.
Also see the snacks: potato emulsion-topped seaweed crackers, pommes souffle dabbed with cured kingfish, and smoky skewered ox tongue, glazed in the tart-sweetness of lilly pilly – one of the native ingredients adopted by Clavaron, a Frenchman who continued his multi-generational family tradition of toiling in Michelin-starred restaurants before heading down under.
The RACV crowd has no reason to fear those indigenous ingredients, which in the wrong hands can be bold and not at all beautiful. (I tender to the court the fried salt and vinegar saltbush leaves, which quietly make the case for their own vending machine in the lobby.)
Cape Restaurant is a latecomer to the resort. Taking over a sweep of the ground floor previously wasted on the admin department (the more casual restaurant, Samphire, occupies Cape’s previous digs), the semi-circular dining room rocks a darkly earthy palette punctuated with the pop of turquoise velvet banquettes and fat blown-glass pendant lights.
Once dark settles and it’s no longer possible to see the 10th hole, you’re left at the mercy of your dining companions and the plates. I can’t vouch for the former but you’re in safe hands with the scampi, waved near a heat source until its almost-set proteins reach peak creaminess, draped over braised kangaroo tail lapped by saffron bisque.
Clavaron’s old-school-new-tricks approach, all three- or four-ingredient simplicity, sees a tiny mushroom agnolotto click with the seasons, a shiitake broth negating the need for the shaved truffle supplement; a disc of marinated venison sits alongside a pumpkin-sheathed shortcrust pastry tart of the braised meat, both acting as gateway drugs to game.
They’ve nailed the service – particularly the wine side of things, all fizzing excitement about drilling down into the Peninsula terroir, especially small-run producers who normally don’t see their name in lights: stand up and be counted the Gunnamatta pinot noir, all subtle unfiltered beauty and balanced bright earthiness.
Even in the deep end of an eight-course deg, the appeal of Crittenden’s Jura-style Macvin Savagnin – an impressionistic whirl of nutty, briny and sweet – is so compelling it would be criminal not to bow to the suggestion of an extra pre-dessert cheese course.
And then there’s dessert. An homage to the bee in the form of honeycomb and pollen with camomile and yoghurt is pleasant without blowing off socks – although that may be the effects of the cheese.
But look, hang any latent automobile club snobbery. The votes are in, and Cape is another nail in the coffin of my peninsula restaurant hostility. Does it give me great pleasure to write this? I’m not sure. But sod it, here’s another compelling reason to visit.
Go-to dish John dory with snail, celeriac and truffle
Vibe Posh country club
Cost $280 for two (5 courses) or $320 for two (8 courses), plus drinks
Pro tip Stay overnight – the rooms and suites are slick, and most cost less than the meal.
Larissa Dubecki is Good Food’s acting chief reviewer. Besha Rodell is on leave.