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Fertile ground

Aaron Turner’s love of the countryside in which he grew up, combined with his beautifully conceived food, is thrilling diners on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, writes Michael Harden.

This restaurant is now closed.

Regional Victoria seems to have its dining mojo working overtime at the moment. There's an increasing feeling of hopefulness, even confidence, among food-savvy Melburnians leaving city limits that a good restaurant experience is never too far away, even on roads less travelled. Reaching Loam after bumping along on dirt through the backblocks of the Bellarine Peninsula provides further evidence that such confidence is not misplaced.

Loam is a small restaurant in a modest, airy building at Lighthouse Olive Grove outside the town of Drysdale. It's a pretty, suitably bucolic location, particularly when glimpsed through the elevated dining room's picture windows, which take in neatly planted rows of olive trees, the sage-green surrounding countryside and the distant waters of Swan Bay.

The room itself is more practical than beautiful, and you could be forgiven for expecting a pleasant rather than powerful dining experience: the carpet squares on the floor and the plain wooden furniture leave most of the visual drama to the view. Look closely at the large, wheeled wooden bench in the centre of the room, however, and you get the first inkling that things at Loam are not as straightforward as first impressions might suggest. Among the stacks of plates and bottles of wine, there's a small pile of eggs stacked in a nest, a variety of apples scattered here and there, baskets containing bunches of tiny-leafed edible succulents and a sizeable flurry of silverbeet sitting in a vase. Locally sourced ingredients are clearly on the agenda.

These suspicions are confirmed with the arrival of an appetiser - two small, perfectly plump, juicy breakfast radishes with stems and leaves still attached, sitting on a piece of dark slate and strewn with a slightly sweet coffee "soil". The dish's nod to Denmark's Noma is not misplaced, as Loam's chef and owner, Aaron Turner, is not too long back from stages both at Noma and at Spain's El Celler de Can Roca. The experience obviously moved him because he's dishing up some beautifully conceived, wonderfully flavoursome and always handsome food.

Turner grew up on Victoria's southwest coast and his love of the region has led him and his wife Astrid (who oversees the front of house with relaxed aplomb) to highlight the impressive local produce at Loam, whether it be the bread from the Zeally Bay organic bakery in Torquay, quinces from neighbouring farms, mushrooms picked in nearby pine forests or meat pickled by local butchers.

Refreshingly, though, the local-produce focus is more about flavour than dogma, and Turner is perfectly happy to look further afield - to Glenloth for chickens or to New South Wales for sand crab, for example - to get the balance right in his daily changing menus.

Loam's bills of fare don't list particular dishes but offer a half-page of ingredients which are currently in the kitchen and which may appear in your two, four, seven or nine very reasonably priced courses. Portions are skilfully handled, as is the timing of the meal, so that even with the larger menus, the feeling is of being sated rather than force-fed. The one-page wine list favours smaller Australian (especially Victorian) labels while also jumping around Europe. A matched-wine option is the perfect plan for those who want to put themselves completely in Loam's hands and just let the whole, quite remarkable experience wash over them.

This might start with a dish of pine and slippery jack mushrooms, gently fried so that their edges are just crisp, then scattered across a layer of yoghurt that's oddly but very successfully flavoured with young pine needles from the same forest where the mushrooms grew. Sitting on the top, there's brilliant green silverbeet picked from Loam's gardens. Sprigs of wood sorrel add some nice acidic notes to the earthy and thoroughly enjoyable mix.

Looking almost better than it tastes is a combination of steamed and shredded sand crab sitting on a pale yellow, silky smooth horseradish custard and topped with cauliflower "cous cous", made by crumbling raw cauliflower and tossing it quickly in a super-hot pan. There are also two small balls of nashi pear, compressed and flavoured with a dash of fish sauce, that add an elegant touch of sweet saltiness to the proceedings.

A dish of pink ling, pan-fried and then soused with apple cider vinegar, breaks the no-cheese-with-seafood rule. It comes with a beautifully restrained crumbled ricotta-like cheese made with local seawater, noodles made from salted daikon, two small lengths of peeled cucumber and a salty foam made from mussels and white wine. The fine balance, in both flavour and texture, is a recurring theme.

It's there again in a small cube of superbly flavoursome beef tongue, pickled by a local butcher, slow-braised, peeled, briefly tossed in a pan and then finished in the oven. The meat is a deep-pink, the shade of which is picked up in the accompanying red quinoa and the bright, acidic sliver of dried tomato laid over the beef. A final, earthy, refreshing note is the addition of sunrose, a local succulent (also known as miner's lettuce or winter purslane) that tastes a little like snap peas.

A cheese plate arrives as rubble: Grand Reserve Ossau Iraty cheese, crumbled and mixed with similarly crumbled organic spelt, tiny flecks of carrot braised and flavoured with cardamom and clove, and baby celery leaves. While the idea of scooping up a cheese course with a spoon can be initially disconcerting, it becomes an enjoyable, even fun experience, though not one that would necessarily bear too much repetition.

The dessert course centres on a gently flavoured quince parfait that is slightly overwhelmed by everything else happening on the plate - there are a lot of quite powerful spiced breadcrumbs, similarly robust, sharp-flavoured honeycomb, a jelly made with honey from local hives, and candied lemon rind. The elements have their merits individually but together tend to talk over the top of each other so you can't quite hear what any one ingredient is saying.

There's certainly a lot of enthusiasm and plenty of intricate technique at work in Loam's kitchen, a combination that in the wrong hands can go terribly wrong. Luckily, Aaron Turner has the right hands. His intelligent food is beautiful to look at and even better to eat and provides yet another great reason to get out of town.


LOAM

650 Andersons Rd, Drysdale, (03) 5251 1101.
Licensed.
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Open Thu-Sun noon-3pm (also Wed in summer); Fri-Sat 6.30pm-9pm.
Prices Two courses $35; four courses $60; seven courses $90; nine courses (dinner only) $115.
Vegetarian On request.
Noise Negligible.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A grand, big sky view over olive groves to Swan Bay.
Minus The dirt road in means the 4WD might get dusty.

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LOAM

650 Andersons Rd, Drysdale, (03) 5251 1101.
Licensed.
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Open Thu-Sun noon-3pm (also Wed in summer); Fri-Sat 6.30pm-9pm.
Prices Two courses $35; four courses $60; seven courses $90; nine courses (dinner only) $115.
Vegetarian On request.
Noise Negligible.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A grand, big sky view over olive groves to Swan Bay.
Minus The dirt road in means the 4WD might get dusty.

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