The Mornington Peninsula doesn't guard its treasures jealously. The moment you arrive, its charms are spread before you, there to be savoured. Its virtues are as varied as they are magnetic: bay and ocean beaches, rugged sea cliffs, fertile farmland thick with grapevines and cherry orchards, tomato and strawberry fields.
Then there's the wall-to-wall wineries, the producers of artisan cheese and bread and chocolate, and the long winding roads that open suddenly to breathtaking big-sky sea views or plunge dramatically through avenues of dark, gnarled, fairytale pine trees. Factor in that it's only just over an hour from Melbourne (a drive made even simpler since the 2013 opening of the Peninsula Link freeway) and the region's pulling power is very easy to understand.
And then there's the dining.
The Mornington Peninsula's established players have been turning heads for years and have defined a certain peninsula style. The arrival of a raft of new players, meanwhile, has made the already impressive restaurant scene even more impressive - and diverse - than ever. There's a good argument to be made for declaring it the best regional dining spot in the country.
"I love being a part of the peninsula," says Brigitte Hafner, who can be counted among the newcomers. The Gertrude Street Enoteca chef (and Gourmet Traveller regular) says she never has to look far here for inspiration, whether it's produce, the producers or simply the land itself. Hafner has just bought into the area, and will also be here all month cooking at the second annual instalment of the GT-Gertrude Street pop-up at Avani Red Hill. "I'm looking forward to a summer of exploring," she says, "finding new produce, cooking with it, seeing what other chefs are doing with it in the region. And then finishing up each day with a swim at Point Leo."
Any explorer new to the region would do well to seek out the establishments that best embody the local style. Among the most influential of these have been Ten Minutes by Tractor, Montalto and Foxeys Hangout - vineyard restaurants focused on local produce all, but each different in its approach.
The dial at Ten Minutes by Tractor may be set towards fine dining, but there's a relaxed breeziness to the scene. Chef Stuart Bell emphasises the local - cheese, honey, apples, seafood - but in pretty, often clever ways. Its success has set a benchmark for casually sophisticated dining in the region.
Montalto, which comprises a handsome glass-walled à la carte dining room, casual Piazza and Garden Café, and shady picnic areas set among the vines and wetlands, is another pioneer of the peninsula's flexible, aesthetically conscious style.
Foxeys Hangout's cellar door, on the other hand, has done something unique by ditching the restaurant model altogether for a rambunctious, casual and thoroughly enjoyable experience that's part canteen, part tavern, part osteria. It's often frenetic, with people crowded around tables and sprawled on the outside deck, but it somehow adds to its rakish charm.
Then there's Max's Restaurant at Red Hill Estate, which has been dishing up solid Italian food and amazing views for almost 25 years. And Salix at Willow Creek, where chef Bernard McCarthy has been crafting impressive, vibrant Euro-leaning food for more than a decade. And Stillwater at Crittenden Estate, one of the first restaurants on the peninsula to work its menu around the produce growing in the kitchen garden. Quality isn't in short supply.
More casual places such as the excellent bistro at the Flinders Hotel and the Red Hill Brewery (replete with hop yard and sunny deck), meanwhile, have long catered well to a more easygoing crowd.
With new names bolstering the already impressive array of eating and drinking options, the region seems set to keep pushing the envelope. New places, new chefs and new ideas abound from one side of the Mornington Peninsula to the other, just ripe for the summer holidays.
The beautiful property once known as Vines of Red Hill was sold last year to winemaker Sam Coverdale and his wife Emma. In less than a year, they've reopened the restaurant, added accommodation and transformed it into one of the peninsula's most elegant destinations.
The new incarnation embraces a dark, dramatic palette of greys and dark timber, leather and tile, via a truly lovely fit-out by designers Hecker Guthrie.
The colours and textures sync perfectly with the magnificent eucalypts that flank the central restaurant building and shade the newly extended deck. The views from here extend over the vines towards the dam and picnic areas, while a small lounge with a fireplace near the entrance to the bistro will have visitors jostling for a position when the weather cools.
Chef Andrew Doughton is in Polperro's kitchen where, he says, "the garden drives the menu". The former chef (and still owner) at Red Hill's The Long Table dishes up the good-looking, unfussy likes of pork shoulder wood-grilled on canes from the vineyard and served with pickled cumquats and caramelised fennel. Crisp master-stock chicken and punchy side dishes, such as vibrant snow peas with cashew nuts and black beans, show both simplicity and interest.
For those reluctant to leave the idyllic setting, Polperro also offers accommodation. Four new villas with open fireplaces, central spa baths and king-size beds are designed for couples and ideal lodgings after a session on the deck under the gums.
Polperro Wines, 150 Red Hill Rd, Red Hill, (03) 5989 2471
Yabby Lake Vineyard
Yabby Lake, best known for single-vineyard chardonnay and pinot noir, has been attracting attention as one of the peninsula's best casual lunch destinations, particularly now that respected Melbourne chef Andrew Blake is on board as consulting chef.
There's much to like before you even get to the food. A lengthy driveway cuts through vineyards and an impressive avenue of pale-barked gum trees before twisting and turning a few times to deposit you outside a 1970s-era brick-and-timber house surrounded by bush.
Once the original home on the property, the building is now dining room and cellar door. The modest scale adds a homely charm that's ably supported by timber detailing, a sandy-coloured terrazzo floor, and impressive artwork from the collection of the owners, the Kirby family. A wall of windows opens out onto an umbrella-shaded deck, lawns (featuring sculpture and swings) and views to distant Mount Eliza. Blake's menu proves he's still a master of fine-tuned, Euro-influenced accessibility that's here influenced by both the local produce and the estate's wine.
A broad bean and pea risotto is teamed with a Red Hill washed-rind goat's cheese, while a fish pie, flavoured with leek and chardonnay, is made using the day's catch from Port Phillip Bay. Strawberries from Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm become fritters served with vanilla mascarpone and fig vincotto. The dining room is due to be expanded but, until then, space is limited and booking ahead is an excellent idea.
Yabby Lake Vineyard, 86-112 Tuerong Rd, Tuerong, (03) 5974 3729
Merricks General Wine Store
It's been around since 1924, this quaint tin-and-timber shed on the Frankston-Flinders Road, and has had many incarnations since, including as a dilapidated, potential candidate for levelling. It's now one of the best casual dining places on the Mornington Peninsula. Its timber-floored rooms with high ceilings are spruced up without forsaking any of the historic-shed ambience. The menu sticks to the quality-ingredients-cooked-simply side of the ledger, and the front of the store acts as cellar door to three of the region's wineries (Baillieu, Elgee Park, Quealy).
Now Merricks General Wine Store has entered a new phase, with chef Patrice Repellin running the kitchen after closing his long-running Kooyong restaurant, Koots Salle à Manger.
Merricks General Wine Store owner Samantha Baillieu says that while the kitchen under Repellin has stuck with the existing (highly successful) brief of "country casual" - goat's cheese and asparagus tart, a steak with béarnaise, roasted mushrooms with prosciutto and Gruyère - having the talented French chef on board has "raised the bar a little more and added some Burgundian country style" to the menu.
Lunch in the old shed (or on the lovely sun-trap of an outside terrace) has never looked better.
Merricks General Wine Store, 3460 Frankston-Flinders Rd, Merricks, (03) 5989 8088
Three alumni from Dunkeld's acclaimed Royal Mail Hotel have joined forces in the old homestead on Dromana Estate winery, a handsome white building that also houses the winery's cellar door, surrounded by lawns, an Edna Walling garden and vineyards.
Front of house guy Clinton Trevisi and husband-and-wife chefs Janine and Rowan Herrald have created a smart modern restaurant in the bright, airy old house complete with a clever, single-page wine list and intricate food made with locally sourced ingredients and produce from the restaurant's gardens.
Yet despite all the restaurant smarts on display, Terre feels completely of its place. Sitting on the terrace on a balmy day, glass of wine in hand, is a sure-fire ticket to a feeling of deep well-being, with the outside world seeming like a vague, slightly annoying memory despite the proximity of the freeway to Melbourne.
The Herralds keep the menu tightly focused with just four entrées, main courses and desserts, all of which change frequently, to reflect the availability of produce. Smoked trout might be served with smoked butter cream, chervil and buckwheat, while pork belly could be teamed with chorizo, squid and eggplant.
Janine Herrald's desserts are odd, artistic, pretty, revelatory flavour-bombs that might involve figs and cherries or chocolate and salted caramel délice with apricots, and worth a trip to Tuerong in themselves.
Terre, Dromana Estate, 555 Old Moorooduc Rd, Tuerong, (03) 5974 3155
The Balnarring Shopping Village, while certainly a steadfastly practical place bristling with a supermarket and specialty stores, may not be an immediate choice of dining location for most visiting the Mornington Peninsula. But despite the absence of vineyard-stitched views, the unlikely location actually adds to the charm of Le Bouchon, a classic French bistro owned by one-time France-Soir waiter Stephane Salers.
The France-Soir approach - keep it classic, keep it simple, pull back on the French tropes just before the point of cliché - is very much in evidence. The room is timber bistro chairs, banquettes and clean white walls, and there's a fabulous little outside area furnished with French café tables and chairs.
The menu continues the theme with a greatest-hits list of escargot, duck liver pate, pork rillettes, confit duck, steak with béarnaise, chocolate mousse and crème brûlée, whipped up with élan by chef Dave Walford. Add a wine list where Mornington Peninsula wines rub shoulders with some reasonably priced French bottles, and you have a dining experience that may not be typical of the region but is very much a valuable addition to the scene as a whole.
Le Bouchon, Shop 3/8-10 Russell St, Balnarring, (03) 5983 2012
Two chefs from Sydney, Michelle Ball and Adam Dargan, make a tree-change in 2010 and find themselves on a 70-year-old apple orchard on the Mornington Peninsula. They begin making pies, pastries, sausage rolls, cakes, casseroles and soups that they sell from their house, like a farm gate. They get busy. The apple pies, made from their own fruit - both the familiar Granny Smith and more obscure heirloom varieties such as Cox's orange pippin - always sell out.
The business starts to overwhelm the home and they move it to nearby Red Hill Lavender farm, which has a concrete-floored, timber-lined restaurant with a rather lovely deck. They team up with a couple of friends - Alice Heath, who runs the front of house, and Scott Ledgar, a fellow chef - and are able to persuade people to stick around for a coffee and a pastry while picking up supplies from the produce shop.
They get busier. Now they're open for breakfast and lunch from Friday to Sunday and dinner on Saturdays, where the changing weekly menu might include grain-mustard roast beef with salad and potatoes, gravlax with asparagus and capers, and a crème brûlée tart.
Johnny Ripe has become something of a community hub, as locals catch up on the sunny deck while waiting to buy supplies for the weekend. They've even figured out which days to go because, rest assured, those apple pies will sell out. Actually the best thing about Johnny Ripe is much more than the food. It makes you feel like a local, even when you're just passing through.
Johnny Ripe, 284 Main Creek Rd, Main Ridge, (03) 5989 6515
Chances are that if you've eaten on the Mornington Peninsula during mushroom season, the wild mushrooms have been picked by Julian Hills, head chef for the past three years at Paringa Estate.
Hills is that kind of guy. He grew up on a farm where fishing, hunting and foraging were a part of his DNA, and he's brought the philosophy to Paringa. During his time there, the restaurant's menu has become a noticeable champion of peninsula ingredients. It's also becoming one of the most well known in the region.
Established by winemaker Lindsay McCall in 1985, Paringa Estate is particularly known for its pinot noir and shiraz. It's a little off the beaten track, which makes finding the place (not all that hard really) seem a little more rewarding, especially when you get the first glimpse of the beautiful countryside, filled with green fields, vineyards and black-green pine trees that provide the outlook for lunch.
Somewhat sacrilegiously, Hills says he "doesn't believe in seasonal menus", which may sound counterintuitive, particularly in a country setting, but is actually his way of being hyper-responsive to the ever-changing availability of ingredients around him.
Subsequently, he tends to change a few things every week or so. The gorgeous wallaby tartare with caper emulsions and juniper, or the pan-fried gnocchi with asparagus, pickled pine mushroom and goat's cheese may not be available all the time, but what is available is clever, pleasing and pretty. Something of a win-win-win.
Paringa Estate, 44 Paringa Rd, Red Hill South, (03) 5931 0136
Port Phillip Estate
The automatic timber doors leading to Port Phillip Estate's restaurant, bistro and cellar door are surely the Mornington Peninsula's prime money shot.
From the car park, the vast Wood/Marsh-designed building appears like a rammed-earth fortress, windowless and slightly forbidding. But as you walk to the entrance, the doors swing open to reveal an incredible view, framed by floor-to-ceiling windows, that takes in a sweep of vines, fields and, in the distance, ocean. You can actually use the word "breathtaking" without feeling overly dramatic.
On the right of the high-ceilinged space is the cellar door and bistro. Its rustic more casual-leaning menu runs from small plates, such as ham hock and Manchego croquettes, and burrata with salami, to mains that might include duck confit or a simple sirloin with frites.
To the left is the restaurant. It's a grand, modern space with a fine-dining offering that's refined but not stitched-up. Chef Stuart Deller took over the kitchen about six months ago and has found balance, freeing the food from the previous finicky bonds of dust and squiggles for a more honest approach that can stand up to its imposing surrounds.
He delivers pretty and complex dishes but they are more relaxed. There might be expertly cooked suckling pig with choucroute and celeriac purée, lamb sweetbreads teamed with apple and hazelnuts, or a local orange-blossom honey panna cotta that shines a spotlight on poached Red Hill quinces.
It's an impressive venue, but with its outdoor terrace a perfect place for a quick coffee, and polished service, it's also a big follower of the casually sophisticated playbook.
Port Phillip Estate, 263 Red Hill Rd, Red Hill South, (03) 5989 4444
The Long Table
With co-owner and former chef at The Long Table, Andrew Doughton, now cooking up the road at Polperro, he and wife Samantha Fitzgerald decided it was time to change the direction of their long-running Red Hill restaurant.
Enter chef Daniel Whelan (formerly of Annie Smithers, Gertrude Street Enoteca and last year's Gourmet Traveller pop-up at Avani Winery in Red Hill), who has brought with him a pared-back, ingredient-focused Euro style.
His menu is one where everything is made in-house, such as the spaghetti that's served with local mussels and a jamón crumb, and the baccalà and potato croquettes served with saffron aïoli and fennel.It's a style of food well suited to the ever-changing availability of produce on the peninsula, one that takes full advantage of local fish, mushrooms, cheese, olives, apples and strawberries.
There's a separate blackboard bar menu, perfect for those who want to make a pitstop for a quick glass of wine on The Long Table's shaded veranda, which is a good idea as the wine list has changed direction under the new regime.
It's now all-Australian with a focus on Mornington Peninsula wines and boutique labels from around the country. There's a wide range available by the glass as well as the carafe - including one-off wines from local producers tapped straight from the barrel - plus a good snapshot of local beer and cider. The new bistro style of The Long Table is a good fit. After 11 years, there's a new spring in its step.
The Long Table, 159 Shoreham Rd, Red Hill South, (03) 5989 2326