Driving into Healesville - the undisputed food and wine epicentre of the Yarra Valley - I wonder if there will be trouble finding Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander Winery, the new winery, café and cellar door complex of wine and beer entrepreneur Phil Sexton. The place has 'gone up' since I last visited, and with typical forethought, I haven't even brought along an address.
Amble through this gentle country town at the end of a road that dissects some of Australia's most expensive viticultural acreage and the first thing you'll notice is change. It was once all upright citizens in cardigans and Japanese tourists with cameras. Domestically, it was a simple timber town halfway between the city and the mountains.
Now, in the heart of Healesville, you'll find the reborn food and wine-centric Healesville Hotel, a brilliant produce store and butcher shop beside it, a fresh pasta shop and Barriques Wine Store; food and wine has infused the place with a new kind of tree-changing life and energy.
So. Keep going past the turn-off to the Sanctuary, over the bridge and, whoa! It's soon clear just how ridiculous any idea of missing the place is. There is no missing Giant Steps. In timber, galvanised steel and glass - masses of it all - it's possibly the most interesting culinary pitstop to be constructed in regional Victoria for years. And this architectural warehouse-cum-factory space makes quite a statement in a small town.
For years there was talk of Sexton doing 'something' along the lines of wine, cheese, pizza and coffee not at his Giant Steps vineyard in Coldstream but in Healesville itself. It was all talked about in a fairly low key, laid-back manner. Maybe those who knew more about Sexton, who started Devil's Lair Vineyard, Matilda Bay Brewing Company and Little Creatures brewery, all in WA, before heading east, had a better idea of the intended scope of the project and ambitions of the man. But it knocked me for six.
Giant Steps is a kind of oasis for those of us who thrive on the sights and smells of great consumables. Inside this building, they make wine. Good wine, say the critics, under the Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander labels. I happen to love the Innocent Bystander Pink Moscato. And there's something intrinsically connective about eating and drinking in the very place where the wine is crushed, fermented, stored and eventually bottled.
They run a café - nothing unique in itself - except they have a schmick bean-roasting facility, turning out two separate styles daily for latte and espresso. There's a cellar door where the cleverly branded Sexton labels parade themselves to visitors. They have a proper, artisan-style bakery, producing really sexy organic sourdough and other pâtisserie.
They have a restaurant and pizzeria, although it isn't one of those glorified antipasti-winery 'restaurants' and nor is it a linen, amuse bouche entrée-main-dessert sort of deal either, producing food that is inappropriate to the region, setting and customer. And they have a proper cheese room - winemaker Steve Flamsteed is also a qualified cheesemaker (and chef) and for a bit of fun, he takes on the role of affineur, selecting immature cheeses from here and abroad and ageing where appropriate to offer something a bit extra in-house.
If you were working through a checklist of life's non-negotiable staples - wine, beer, coffee, bread, cheese, pizza (and other good food) - you'd find an attitude in this building that is particularly comforting. It's hard not to be a little swept away with the vision. More importantly, it's impossible to not be impressed by the sheer single-mindedness of it all. Where so many cellar-door restaurant facilities have a foot and maybe a few extra toes in the 'functions' camp, watering down the whole dining feel, Giant Steps has a far more down-to-earth business model that doesn't rely on weddings and birthday parties and the kind of food those sorts of clients want.
There may be no vineyard outside, but it feels far more like a genuine, wine-district country experience than a lot of others. Massive red gum planks have been honed to create communal tables, terrazzo floors add a stylish, practical element, overhead speakers would be well-suited to a club, there are even copies of John Coltrane's Giant Steps for sale for $15 each. But the thing about being a customer here is the sense of involvement. All around is activity and, fortunately, a lot of that activity is going into good things to eat and drink. Apart from its informality and the simplicity of the menu, two things are obvious: there is skill in this kitchen, and the produce employed makes a statement about how, presumably, Sexton would like the world to see his wines.
Chef Jarrod Hudson came to the Valley eight months ago from Sydney where his career spanned a total of eight years working for Christine Manfield and subsequent stints at The Wharf with Tim Pak Poy and Oceanic Thai with Max Mullins; modern Asian-inspired cooking is his thing. The produce-driven and regionally inspired direction is something different. But as the chef says, "I just want to cook simple, delicious food". And he's doing it, no question.
First you see sliced sourdough and brilliant olive oil, and maybe an Innocent Bystander Pinot Gris. It's the start of a very satisfying succession of tastes. An antipasto selection includes baby mushroom arancini with a crunchy shell; a fat, fleshy house-cured sardine; zucchini ribbons rolled around local goat's curd served on a homemade shredded beetroot relish; Kalamata and Ligurian olives; salsa verde; jamón; slices of house-cured Atlantic salmon; and house-made grissini, at once crunchy and chewy. It's a totally accurate bellwether of the hands-on, unpretentious but considered food to follow, screaming honesty, care and love.
A pizza cooked in a red gum wood-fired oven flags the house philosophy; on a thin, tasty and slightly flexible base, the kitchen has merely added a vibrant tomato sugo, pieces of local buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and torn leaves of the most pungent basil. Another relies on tapenade, prosciutto and torn radicchio for the same effect. Good pizza.
From a menu section entitled 'not pizza', a number of dishes utilise local products well; there's fresh Yarra Valley pasta, potatoes from Dobson's and a dish of mussels steamed in house pinot gris. And there's a superb salad of flaked smoked trout from Buxton teamed with ribbons of pickled cucumber, witlof fronds, red radish and more of that marvellous pure basil. The produce sings.
Even a simple side salad consisting of cucumber chunks, halved cherry tomatoes and long chive segments, dressed with good olive oil and red wine vinegar, is a statement of quality. Each day, a number of pot dishes are baked individually: colourful, small cast-iron numbers that reveal steaming magic when the lids are popped at the table. Today, it's chermoula-smothered chicken pieces cooked on the bone with pomegranate molasses and pearl barley, soaking up the rich, aromatic juices. It's garnished with a preserved lemon and parsley 'relish'. The clever balance of spicing reflects the chef's background with Manfield.
It is, in other words, rustic food borne of great skill. And it is so appropriate to the setting. Even the simple pâtisserie, such as a rhubarb tart, reflects a quality-only approach here. Most would buy rolls of puff pastry and churn it out, looking good but accepting compromise. Here they've settled batons of rhubarb into a bed of pâtisserie cream atop a brilliant, buttery golden pastry that is unequivocally made in-house. Add one scoop of Yarra Valley Ice-cream's vanilla, a piece of pink moscato Turkish delight and a double espresso - all served by switched on, pleasant staff (several tree-changed from the city's restaurant trade), to achieve a potent argument for how to do the winery restaurant thing so very right.
Giant Steps may be a name that suggests Sexton's love of Coltrane. But he'd probably be too modest to suggest that 'giant steps' is a remarkably apposite descriptor for what he's done in Healesville within the context of winery and regional hospitality. That's okay, leave it to us. Don't miss this one.
While you're in the area, try…
TarraWarra Estate Consultant chef Michael Lambie (Taxi/Lamaro's) has given the Besen family's WineBar Café a real shot in the arm. 311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Rd, Yarra Glen, Vic, (03) 5962 3311.
Hub of a blossoming business enterprise for the tree-changed Kennedy family, the restaurant with its outdoor garden seating is the perfect place to recharge while on the food and wine trail. The place is a must for wine lovers. 256 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville, Vic, (03) 5962 4002.
Gary Cooper is one of the Yarra Valley's strongest food identities and his cooking, set among the vine-strewn hills of Badger's Brook, is pure, unpretentious and inspired by the countryside. Badger's Brook Winery, 874 Maroondah Hwy, Coldstream, Vic, (03) 5962 6161.
We also love Leonard Kusnezow's rustic flavours at Cru (03) 5962 6966 overlooking the Outlook Hill Vineyard and Yering Station's Wine Bar Restaurant (03) 9730 0100; great wines, fabulous setting, and a smart menu inspired by local produce.