The first course is called Land and Garden and it's like unwrapping a present. A section of roasted onion sits on top of slices of carrot, next to a pool of beetroot sauce and topped with pink-tipped, finely julienned radish. Under the onion cap are delicate lion's mane mushrooms braised in the style of teriyaki, mixed with shiitakes from Benton Rise. They taste like chicken and are teamed with steamed abalone to great textural effect. But wait. Like so much at Laura, it gets better as you go deeper.
There's surprise and delight already – carrots revealing a hint of star anise, the beetroot sauce edged with sesame oil – but then, a few bites in, you find a magnificent curry emulsion. Somewhere between mousse and mayo in texture, it's like a twist in the tale. Most dishes in restaurants present well and then get less interesting once you stick a fork in them. But at Laura, the plot thickens.
There's plenty to get excited about at Pt Leo Estate. You'd hope so, given that $50 million has been spent building the sculpture park and its glass-fronted cellar door and restaurant building. The estate's sea views, broken only by the occasional Cragg, Plensa, Halpern, King or Meadmore, are impressive. But the food offering is equally stirring. Big budgets can breed hubris in a restaurant but there've been no bad decisions here. The choice of Phil Wood as culinary director has proven decisive.
Over four, five or six courses, his food at Laura (the restaurant is named for the Jaume Plensa sculpture out front) balances precision cooking and artful plating with elements of surprise. The perception of what you're eating can change from one bite to the next.
Orchards, the dessert course, is a wave-like ripple of meringue, its troughs filled with dried figs cooked in estate pinot noir, mixed with candied lemon rind and topped with a delicate, foam-like lemon cream. It's a clever, delicate combination. Then suddenly there's cumin ice-cream and candied walnuts. As they emerge from under the meringue, they seamlessly add a more complex Christmas pudding-like layer to the mix.
There's less sleight-of-hand in Livestock, but it's still theatrical, arriving sealed in a black crust of salt and ash. Broken open at the table, it reveals braised lamb brisket and neck pressed with chicken mousse and figs, wrapped in fig leaves from Cape Schanck. It comes with a decision: would you like the hot-and-sour or Tuscan chicken-liver sauce? With livers, pancetta, rosemary and wine in the equation, it's the Tuscan by a nose.
The choices are all good in this serene space. Separated by glass from Pt Leo Estate's busy bistro and cellar door, Laura's dining room is light and tranquil. The detailing is timber, the tables topped with leather. Earthenware vases of native flora, black-handled Cutipol cutlery and Zalto glassware conspire to form an impression of urbane elegance. The backdrop is all sculpture, paddock and sea.
The service team has impressive credentials and proves calm, precise and never over-eager. The wine list displays similar confidence. Bound in black leather, its 38 pages cover a lot. It's democratic in its approach to big-name and low-intervention winemaking and has Victoria as one focus, Estate wines mixing with the likes of Mac Forbes riesling and Best's dolcetto. There are sections devoted to Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Austria but with no grandstanding. It's knowledgeable and trustworthy.
Wood's last gig was at Sydney's Eleven Bridge, a fine diner that showcased his impeccable technique, affinity for seafood and dedication to putting the tasty ahead of the tricky. In addition to calling the shots in the kitchen, his role at Laura has another difference: the Mornington Peninsula.
The focus on regional produce is present in every dish. Brioche is made with Taralinga olive oil and served with Cape Schanck oil, both from the Peninsula. Plump mussels, cold smoked and mixed with pistachio nuts, dried tomatoes, seaweed butter and Peninsula corn, are from down the road at Flinders.
The Peninsula is small though, and its supply capacity limited. It makes sense that some ingredients have to be found further afield. Nobody sane would begrudge the imported caviar that's teamed with Yarra Valley trout roe to accompany a superb slow-cooked local Dutch cream potato doused in butter sauce and miso cream. But pairing Spencer Gulf prawns with perfectly steamed John Dory or offering oysters and abalone from New South Wales seems a little out of whack with the implied remit. But it's a small quibble in the face of an original and enormously satisfying dining experience.
Laura is one of the most exciting openings of the year. Wood's deft twists and turns and gorgeously composed flavours are the work of an artist. He's found a natural home among the sculpture.