As a youngster, Yarck was a not-unfamiliar speck on the Victorian map, despite its obscurity. It went like this: Whittlesea, Yea, Yarck - a name you just can't forget for all its marvellous onomatopoeic impact - Mansfield and, finally, Buller. You went through Yarck on the way to the snow, where you got cold and wet and ate rubbish for days on end, because you were young, and you could.
My last brush with this tiny hamlet on the way to somewhere was more than 15 years ago, to buy a puppy from a breeder who advertised black Labradors in The Age. To the amazement of many, Spike is still with us. My Yarck dog. And while the Lab is looking pretty shaky these days, Yarck itself has changed very little.
Yarck. Two hours from central Melbourne. Quintessential Victorian countryside with crows overhead and sheep behind the barbed wire. What a curious place to find yourself at lunch on a Sunday; even more so that it should be a sublime Italian/Australian dining experience. But it's no accident.
To understand even a little of the Tea Rooms at Yarck's provenance is to travel up the Maroondah Highway with expectations. Because this is the manifestation of a quiet love affair between an Italian and the Australian bush. A love that brought Pietro Porcu to Yarck nearly five years ago when he bought a small farm just out of 'town'. And now one that has more or less seen him replicate his South Yarra restaurant Da Noi out here under the gums and wattles that so clearly make the diminutive Sardinian happy.
Da Noi, as many would know, is a special restaurant. Not just because of the unusual food, which takes its cues from the owner's native island, but the "trust us, menus are superfluous" approach that sees every meal turn into a kind of Slow surprise. Trust is something Da Noi has earned.
The Tea Rooms takes it one step further. But instead of huddling in a character-laden, long and narrow quintessential Victorian inner-city terrace, home for this weekends-only trattoria is a pretty but unremarkable weatherboard cottage.
Stripped Baltic pine floors; plain white plasterboard walls with white tongue-in-groove dado panelling; oodles of natural light via the timber-framed sash windows; simple timber ladder-back chairs at tables with white linen and white paper on top. No clichés.
For Porcu, it's an extension of a dream from his youth: to have a rural life where produce from his own farm can be channelled through his own restaurant where beautiful food and loving cookery begs compa-rison with George Biron's legendary Western District restaurant/culinary school of the 90s, Sunnybrae. There's just no denying it.
And in this style, a big blackboard for the many daily specials supplements a list of pizza made by Porcu's childhood friend from Sardinia, baker Luciano Ibbe.
Before negotiating the meal ahead, a wafer-like flatbread arrives. Smeared with a saffron-yellow, lemony paste of fresh chilli and bottarga, it's the signature overture, the piece that says wake up and take notice, this is not necessarily the Italy you think you might know.
Vintage floral plates are laid and a succession of surprising little things starts arriving. Things that may have you packing for Sardinia.
A 'fish salad', as our waiter describes it: a plate of oil-and-wine poached mussels, served at room temperature, with pieces of pale, meaty marlin, just perfect with the spongy and quite exceptional thin-crusted house-made bread. The thin, cloudy juices are sublime.
A small pot of terracotta-coloured baby cuttlefish slices braised with tomato and baby peas, cooked far enough to give intensity without taking things so far as to become overly reduced.
Another room-temperature 'salad' of braised Lebanese eggplant pieces with baby capers, diced fresh tomato, shredded mint, vinegar and no more than a touch of oil. A delicious, chunky mound on the vintage plate; another emphatically 'clean' texture on the palate.
The final of its ilk is a dollop of green capsicum peperonata, cut rough and still with a discreet texture to its vegetal elements, savoury and sweet simultaneously.
Then, a few pieces of porchetta, crisp and fragrant, served with an herbaceous garnish of local myrtle and accompanied by a pot of pickled watermelon rind - a little agro, a little dolce. Bloody heaven in Australian.
A little wedge of potato semolina pudding, wrapped and baked in prosciutto, adds a carbohydrate voice to the choir, but is quickly drowned by slices of orange topped with matchsticks of celery heart and individual waxy furls of salt and pepper-cured duck breast, looking for all the world like fat crimson anchovies. With a drizzling of sweet vincotto, the result is nothing like.
A risotto, fished with orange-pink prawn butter and made with water instead of stock, gets small pieces of raw calamari and bug meat through it to serve. Thin wafers of bottarga add another layer of briny intrigue and texture, a dish Porcu's head chef Carmine Costantini, a former head at Caffè e Cucina who has revelled in the country life he's found at Yarck, can be very proud of.
On another plate, three pumpkin gnocchi are served with cherry tomato wedges and a simple, unaggressive pesto; at the other end, a single, expertly made raviolo of spinach and ricotta with sage butter. Good stuff, but not as defiantly individual as some of its precursors.
It takes a certain confidence to send out a single, ungarnished slice of roast veal in a light gravy of slightly thickened roasting juices. More of it, I say. The rump, from an animal off Porcu's own property, is pink, studded with a piece of garlic and sage; firm but with real, clear and clean flavour. It precedes a terracotta pot of roasted caramelised vegetables and a single, large quail stuffed with a herby forcemeat of pork and veal. Other days he does the quail sautéed with broad bean purée.
Even a simple salad of small, organically grown green leaves, tomato slices and canoe-like wedges of cucumber is just perfect - dressed and sent packing by a kitchen that knows how to serve food.
Aged Testun, a pecorino-like (sheep's milk) cheese from the Cuneo province of Piedmont, comes on another antique platter with toasted almonds, some pear and a glass of pleasantly bitter Sardinian honey.
For sweets, a single profiterole of perfect choux is filled with a pleasantly not-sweet crema pasticceria; the sugar comes from a bitter chocolate sauce; and ricotta cake is finished with a piquant lemon and orange sauce.
Fruit finishes the procession; slices of glistening, spanking honeydew straight from the farm are perfect, although the proprietor reckons a few more days on the vine might have helped. "It's an experiment for you and for me," he says in a heavy accent, despite more than 10 years in this country.
There is nothing untested about a conical glass of sorbettino d'anguria (watermelon sorbet): the texture and flavour are perfect; it tastes of fruit, not sugar.
A sip of Tremontis-brand Mirto - the traditional Sardinian liquore - is remarkably appropriate; wine consumption has necessarily been kept to a bare minimum. As with the menu, it's a case of "Please bring me something you think I'll like". It works for everyone.
And so, before we've even left the table, the next trip to Yarck is in full planning. It won't be on the way to the snow; I'm almost certain there will never be another Labrador from the district; but a minibus, a group of close friends and a sense of culinary adventure will get us up the Maroondah again, and soon. The great Italian/Australian long lunch beckons.
Yarck, it's good to be back.