Victoria is back, baby. We can go anywhere we like, and what better way for our glorious state to remind us of what we’ve been missing than to give us a classic serve of sunny weather with a terrifying storm chaser. Yep, the old girl still has copious amounts of excitement and surprises to throw at us, both natural and human-made.
I get a solid dose of both on my maiden trip to the Yarra Valley post-lockdown, navigating fallen trees and stunning hills to reach Medhurst Winery, where former Bar Liberty chef Joel Alderdice has been quietly plying his trade since late-2019.
Despite being a spicy drive, it’s a pretty one. You weave through the hills of the Yarra Valley. Past orchards and other small vineyards, Medhurst lies on north-facing slopes, with its modern concrete, glass and timber cellar door wedged into the top of the hill so the vines spill away from you everywhere you look.
Medhurst’s cellar door has been on the dining radar before, but more as a stop on a Yarra Valley tour, offering good terrines, oysters and a sandwich of the day. Bringing Alderdice on board definitely signals greater ambition, but thankfully they haven’t gone crazy trying to blow your hair back.
Alderdice is working that kitchen solo, delivering a menu with small wine bar smarts but against the backdrop you’d have paid anything to get a glimpse of in lockdown. That places Medhurst in a Goldilocks sweet spot: the easy dining you crave in epic locations.
And there’s plenty to impress. Such as bread. Even in the dark days I never forgot how good restaurant bread was, but even so, when two thick grain-speckled chunks hit the table, not simply warm, but still steaming from the oven, with a spicy pool of olive oil and salt, there’s a real moment.
Next comes course one, which is actually a flush of three dishes to share showcasing a very local ideology and giving you three great ways to deploy that bread.
Fresh sardines are stuffed with pine nuts and currants, served warm on bay leaves with fresh lemon, neutering the funk. Stone and Crow’s “Galactic” cheese, a young cow’s milk round with a nutty, barely formed rind, comes dressed in spring’s spiciest garden bits, from radish hearts to rocket and nasturtium leaves, with sweet beet cubes and balsamic completing the flavour triangle.
It isn’t overly complicated stuff. But it’s beautiful, fresh and good. Cue beef tartare with the traditional capery-sweet fixings, but also a brown butter crumble, and a whirl of potato strands that have been fried then dusted in tarragon and vinegar powder so they look like a bird’s nest fascinator and taste like good crisps.
What impresses me here is the way Alderdice has shrewdly used his resources – including his own labour – to make something memorable, likeable and reliable. Australia is facing an enormous staffing drought. Venues that try to be all things to all people are likely going to struggle this summer. But Alderdice has set this up for success.
The waves of food take pressure off wait staff, leaving them with enough time to properly stop and tell each table about the winery’s vinous stars – a languid chardonnay, clean pinots, and their Provence-style rosé, which gets its elegance from a premium base of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz grapes. They do a good enough job that we leave with bottles clinking in the boot (diners get a 10 per cent discount, by the way).
The main course is just as bright, pretty and energetic. A nearby smokehouse brines and gently smokes duck ham, which is shaved into juicy slices and wrapped around a barbecued leek, then slashed with a black garlic emulsion and served with fresh broad beans. It’s all the flavours of a Sunday roast, but light and lovely.
Lovelier still are two textural salads – sugarloaf cabbage shaved to a froth of strands with chewy, jelly-like wood-ear mushroom. Then, a festival of Mount Zero’s ethically grown grains from freekeh to farro, and flowery bursts of popped sorghum, with a thatch of shaved carrot, candy-striped beets and young zucchini flowers to mix into a pool of lemony ricotta.
It’s easy to like this smart, tidy package, and easy is what we all need. The drinks list starts and ends with Medhurst’s own wines. Why not offer a purist cellar door experience rather than mess with cocktails and a huge inventory? And $65 a head for an engaging two-course with blistering views is the kind of commitment we can handle.
Then again, you’ll probably want to add dessert. A perfectly short pastry base is filled with warm, fudgy dulce de leche caramel and showered in a thick layer of shaved macadamia nuts. Add coffee and it ties your package in a neat little bow.
Cost: Two courses $65, three courses $80
Drinks: A purist party of Medhurst’s own. Try the rosé.
Pro tip: Nice day? They also offer al fresco dining boxes.