If you were seeking evidence proving the value of small and simple things, Michael Ryan's anchovy starter would certainly help your case. A single Sicilian anchovy is filleted and its skeleton, removed whole, is deep-fried and laid whole across the mottled silver and dusty pink of the flesh. It looks great, like a tiny Ricky Swallow installation, and the brittle, intensely salty shatter of the bones combined with the firm give of the plump fillet comes close to swoonworthiness. Like all the best starters, it disappears quickly and leaves you wanting more.
It is interesting that this small imported fish has become something of a calling card at Provenance. This is, after all, a restaurant in Beechworth, in Victoria's alpine north-east, owned and run by a chef who's built a reputation on his sensitivity for the regional and the seasonal since washing up in nearby Falls Creek (from Adelaide) 15 years ago. But what the anchovy does, with its fried-bone nod to Japanese and Spanish cooking, is to signal some of the influences at work on the rest of Ryan's menu.
While Asian, European and Middle Eastern flavours and techniques are all evident at Provenance, ingredients from nearby producers have an equally strong presence on the list, and it's this mix of the local and the far-flung that makes eating here so enjoyable. Dry-aged Murray grey beef from the King Valley shares a plate with decidedly Nippon-esque miso butter, deep-fried tofu and a soybean and fresh wakame salad. Milawa quail channels the southern Mediterranean with its accompanying pickled watermelon rind, walnuts and candied olives. That this juggling act is performed so successfully speaks volumes about how comfortable Michael Ryan has become in this region he now calls home.
Provenance is Ryan's second restaurant in the area. His first, Range, followed stints at the Milawa Cheese Factory and Beechworth's Wardens, and while it gained its fair share of critical acclaim, there was something about Range's tarted-up motel dining room setting that felt as though the training wheels were still on. With Provenance, opened a little over a year ago in an 1850s-era bank building on one of Beechworth's pretty tree-lined streets, that feeling has disappeared. Ryan, cooking with real confidence and flair, has found a setting that is in step with his food.
The dining room at Provenance, though comfortable enough, still needs some more work to soften its bankerly past. It's an elegant but austere room, high ceilinged and timber floored, with brass light fittings, a large fireplace with a marble mantelpiece, and tall, arched windows framing the established street trees. There are high-backed upholstered chairs mixed with wooden café-style ones and square undressed tables with Asian details. Some modern art and a large French advertising poster add warmth and life to the space, but, in the absence of a full house, it can come across as a bit museum-y. It feels like - and apparently is - a work in progress.
The most successful recycling of the building's past comes with the former bank vault you pass on the way into the dining room; it now houses the restaurant's wine cellar. Winemaker Jeanette Henderson, Michael Ryan's partner, has selected all the bottles stored within the thick granite-blocked vault and her list is refreshingly democratic in terms of both price and geography. There is a local emphasis (including the excellent Amontillado made at the nearby Pennyweight winery), but the rest of Australia and the Old World also put in a good showing. There are some remarkably well-priced labels from France and Germany and there's sake for those choosing to take an Asian path through the menu.
A good first step on that path is the "teapot soup" that comes in a lidded ceramic pot with a handle and a spout and an accompanying teacup for the soup. Inside the pot, floating in a clean-flavoured, sparkling chicken consommé stained dark with a little soy sauce, is a green and cream tangle of fresh wakame, sugar snap peas, King Brown mushroom stems and slices of a smoked boudin blanc-like Milawa sausage made with chicken mince and flavoured with miso and soy. It's a lovely dish, gently flavoured and soft and slippery textured. The steamy wafts from the consommé as you pour the soup into the teacup add to the dish's serene comfort factor.
From another continent comes a dish that makes broccoli the star. A large cross-section of broccoli, roasted brown and all the sweeter for it, sits on a pale green broccoli purée and is topped with marinated anchovies, fried garlic pieces and shreds of pork fat that are salty and fried to crunchiness in olive oil. A good dose of lemon flesh adds a welcome citric bite to a mix that could be called "things that go with broccoli".
Michael Ryan has an affinity for vegetables, as his six-course vegetarian dégustation menu attests. During mushroom season, a dish of fried and preserved wild mushrooms tossed with crushed hazelnuts and crumbled blue cheese and strewn across wet polenta is worth the three-hour drive from Melbourne on its own.
Other meat-free joy can be had in a dish of spring vegetables - steamed broad beans and asparagus, confit baby artichokes, roast cherry tomatoes - arranged around a short grain rice cake that's been quickly deep-fried to give it a satisfyingly crunchy crust. There are raisins too and, underneath all this, a terracotta-coloured North African-style curry sauce, tomato-based and flavoured with preserved lemon, cinnamon, coriander, paprika and cumin. It's a big-flavoured sauce carrying just a hint of chilli heat, but its aromatic charms never swamp the vegetables' sweetness.
The Middle East is the inspiration for a dish of Rutherglen lamb that includes several slices of seared pink fillet and a terrine-like mix of shredded rump, shoulder and kidneys encased in brik pastry. Cinnamon-braised beans and labne are ideal companions to the excellent, admirably tender meat.
Desserts at Provenance don't stint on the continent-jumping and lean towards the lighter and fruitier end of the scale. A very good crema Catalana mostly sticks to the classic orange, lemon and vanilla script, veering off slightly with the addition of bay leaf, which gives an earthiness to the flavour mix. The custard, served in a terracotta bowl, is accompanied by an orange, apricot and almond salad.
A strawberry dessert (using local Wooragee strawberries) is pretty and pink but leans towards the overcomplicated. It includes fresh strawberries, small compressed cubes of green tea cake, scorched pistachios, cream mixed with Seville orange marmalade, green tea powder, and cordial, jelly, paper and powder all made from strawberries.
Provenance is an ambitious restaurant. Multiple influences, artful plating, a statement-making dining room, service well above the country norm and an intelligently selected wine list all indicate that. But it is Michael Ryan's skilled cooking and his ability to successfully highlight the strengths of the local produce that drive the ambition and place Provenance among Victoria's - and arguably Australia's - best regional restaurants.