Want to know what's going on at Oakridge winery's restaurant now chef Matt Stone's in the kitchen? Look no further than his steamed custard.
A pale yellow beauty with the slightly quivery texture of silken tofu, made with local eggs (more on those in a minute) and whey from Yarra Valley Dairy, and subtly flavoured with crushed dried mountain pepper leaves. It's surrounded by peas and broad beans picked from the Oakridge vegetable patch and tossed quickly in whey and butter, and then finished with the bright-green juice of the peas' shells.
It's rustic, pretty, local, waste-free. The flavours are largely left to speak for themselves and the dish is as much about texture as it is flavour. That's how Oakridge rolls these days. And there's a Joost Bakker connection.
Matt Stone's career over the past six or seven years has been closely linked with Bakker, the florist-designer-sustainability warrior and recent recipient of GT's Outstanding Contribution to Hospitality award. The pair has worked together on Greenhouse restaurant in Perth and associated pop-ups in Sydney and Melbourne, and the Melbourne cafés Silo and Brothl, championing concepts like zero waste and closed-loop composting, while making heroes of locally sourced produce and whole foods. The environmental message from the collaboration has always been loud and clear, but has often meant that Stone's talents as a chef have taken a back seat to the cause.
At his new gig in the Yarra Valley, Stone's dedication to the cause is still apparent, but it has become more a part of the package than the point of it. He's committed to sourcing produce locally, and remains a sworn enemy of food waste and unnecessary food miles, but what he's doing with that produce on the plate is exciting and as interesting as its philosophical and ethical underpinnings. With his partner, chef-baker Jo Barrett (formerly of Tivoli Road Bakery) as sous-chef, there are plenty of other reasons to make the trek to Coldstream besides feeling virtuous.
There's another point of difference to Stone's recent past: the Bakker connection at Oakridge is not about Joost, but Joost's daughters. The school-age girls run a small egg company called Bakker Chicks from their parents' property in Monbulk, about 20 minutes' drive from Oakridge, and Stone buys the eggs their 100 chooks lay. If the custard is anything to go by, the Bakker girls are natural-born poultry farmers.
At first glance, though, Stone's fit with Oakridge might not appear to be particularly symbiotic. The winery's cellar door and restaurant building is a sleek, geometric structure designed by architects Denton Corker Marshall that appears more like it landed in the middle of a vineyard rather than emerged from it. Approaching the building from the long driveway it looks like a glass box topped with a giant red Cuisenaire rod that cantilevers out over the front door in an impressive, corporate statement-making way.
It certainly doesn't immediately speak of the rustic and the home-grown with its brutally clean lines and dark-grey terrazzo floor but once you're in the main dining room the building begins to recede, making way for the view through the wall of windows.
And it's a view all right - quintessential Yarra Valley with vineyards rolling down gently sloping hills in the foreground, distant mountains framing the background, rolling pastures in between with a huge, relaxing expanse of sky adding another level of grand serenity to the pastoral scene. Once you're at the table, Stone's approach begins to make sense because you really want to eat stuff that was grown and raised just out there. And so you do, mostly.
The house bread is a French-style sourdough made from a mix of local flour and biodynamic wheat sourced from Western Australia and milled on site at Oakridge. The dough is fermented for 24 hours, and the bubbly crust has a gorgeous chewiness.
The hero ingredient of one of the menu's best dishes isn't local, but given that it's red kangaroo, shot along the border, its environmental footprint is otherwise impeccable. More to the point, it's brilliant. The loin is seared rare, then thinly sliced and served with a salad of kaffir lime, Vietnamese mint, coriander, spearmint, salted cucumber, chilli and bean shoots, and an exuberant lime-based hot and sour sauce.
The meat is fantastic, not overpowered by gaminess, and offering texture and tenderness in equal measure. It's worth the extra few food miles.
Elsewhere things stay strictly local, even when taking a vaguely Nordic turn, as with local smoked trout and local fish roe - earthier, less-salty brook trout eggs from Yarra Valley Caviar - joined by sour cream, herbs from the garden and a lovely escargot-shaped pastry made from croissant dough and potently flavoured with caraway seeds.
Steamed custard with beans, peas and mint.
Crumbed and fried fingers of (local) pork cheek and trotters - braised in chicken stock overnight then pressed - come served with an XO sauce that ditches the usual scallop and shrimp seafood elements for a regionally specific freshwater trout that's cured, hot- and cold-smoked, then dehydrated before being mixed with chilli, garlic, onion and ginger.
The asparagus in the vibrantly flavoured, flaky-chewy Danish comes from a farm just up the road, while the grated aged goat's cheese is made especially for Oakridge under the Stone and Crow Cheese Company label at Yarra Valley Dairy.
The smoky sirloin, grass-fed and dry-aged for four weeks, comes from a farm 15 minutes away and is teamed with spectacularly good locally grown oyster mushrooms, which are fried in beef fat. Happy days for carnivores, the sweet, fresh baby asparagus that also accompanies the meat is pan-fried in beef fat, too.
No surprise, then, that the ducks are local. The birds are dry-aged for between two to four weeks, the breast aged on the bone, then roasted to a pink medium. The skin - crisp, salty and just fatty enough - is possibly worth the price of admission alone, but there's plenty of other good stuff on the plate too, including a salt-baked beetroot ketchup, fried kale leaves and turnip sauerkraut with a wattleseed backbeat of earthy coffee flavour.
Oakridge's wine list - at present all drawn from the estate - takes the locally produced thing to the next level. This is not a bad thing when the output of the winery is wide-reaching and includes sparkling wine, aromatic whites (arneis, sémillon), a broad range of chardonnays, light-bodied reds (the estate bottles four different pinot noirs), and powerful shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. It also includes a range of museum releases not available elsewhere. And the wines are often very good - like the 2014 Oakridge Sémillon with an elegant structure and subtle oaky hints, or the 2015 Oakridge Meunier, poured exclusively at the restaurant and cellar door.
The sense of captive-audience syndrome that an estate-only list brings is unavoidable, but plans are afoot to add a small range of Old World labels for those after a compare-and-contrast experience.
One of the great things about dining at Oakridge is that the service team, led by a relaxed Camm Whiteoak, formerly of Attica, is able to point out the particular vines where the wine you're drinking got its start in life. It's a nice touch and the staff seem genuinely enthused about waving the flag for local produce. Spend some time in the dining room and you'll see a lot of pointing out the windows from the waiters, either towards particular vines or in the general direction of the asparagus farm or the butcher where the kitchen sources whole pigs or the place that grows strawberries and blueberries that might feature in the desserts.
Fruit generally (and seasonally) is a major player at the sweet end of the meal. Strawberries tossed in a eucalyptus syrup team up with pickled rosella flowers, jam made from quandong and riberries, crème fraîche mousse and crème fraîche ice-cream in a pretty, all-Aussie red-fruit version of a classic English fool.
Blueberries dressed in blueberry juice, which gives them an attractive sheen, are teamed with chocolate mousse, a thin disc of sweet vanilla pastry, liquorice ice-cream (made with Darrell Lea liquorice after relations with the liquorice root grown in the garden broke down because the flavour proved too domineering) and a scattering of coriander flowers that put a spring in the dish's step.
Matt Stone's food may not be about carefully finessed plating and smoke-and-mirror technique, but neither is it an earnest manifesto about the environment made edible. There's light and shade here, touches of playfulness, an awareness of texture, very good pastry at every turn, and a great eye for quality produce.
The produce being so local is very attractive in itself, but it's Stone's enthusiasm for it, and his gift for presenting it that have really made Oakridge an instant member of the Yarra Valley's must-do club.