The main reason you’ll want to head to the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne is for the food, writes Jocelyn Pride.
With market gardens and orchards scattered throughout the region or the nearby Yarra Valley, the fresh produce here bursts with flavour and is low in food miles.
The Deli Platter
Start at The Deli Platter in Mt Dandenong village, where everything is made locally. Specialising in ‘real wholesome food’ including tarts, small goods, artesian breads and cheeses, it’s great for food intolerances and complements the fruit and veg next door at the Organic Fanatic. Finish with a stop at one of the area’s roadside stalls and you’ve got yourself the makings of a perfect, low-key meal.
But if you want to eat out, well you are well and truly sorted. No less than three big-name Melbourne foodies have made the recent move to this area, and with the area’s ‘Europe among the gum trees’ reputation we suspect it’s more than coincidence that they’re all French.
The perfect start to your day would be at chef Shannon Bennett’s $65 million project – the renewal of Burnham Beeches, a local icon and lavish, three-storey Art Deco mansion and surrounding gardens built in 1933 (by the founding family of Aspro, incidentally).
Burnham Bakery and Piggery Cafe
Stage one, the Burnham Bakery and Piggery Café, is set in an old pigsty, opened last year, and it’s the kind of provincial setting where hay bales meet marble, the wait staff dress in chequered shirts and the car park is full by 9am.
The indoor/outdoor café overlooks the work-in-progress idyllic country scene – a bowling green, croquet lawn, vegetable garden, truffiere (with 500 French Oak trees thriving on the rich soil), and a bunch of rescued emus, who provide large ‘golden’ green eggs for the revered ‘emu egg sponge cake’. When the reported ‘six-star’ accommodation is added, part of the grand plan is for guests to experience something money can’t buy – digging in the garden, lending a hand in the bakery or even taking a resident dog to hunt for truffles. And there’ll be a reward for hard work – a reduction of the bill.
The café serves food all day, every day. For breakfast, don’t miss the cassoulet with corn fritters and for lunch try the melt-in-your-mouth pork belly BLT with a glass of wine from a nearby Yarra Valley vineyard.
The General Food Store
If you’d prefer to start your day off crowd-free, head to The General Food Store in Emerald. Small in size but big in The Age Good Food accolades, husband-and-wife/chef-and-graphic designer team Paul and Belinda Douglas craft their monthly menu based on what’s in season.
With quirky pardon-the-pun dish names like Peachy Keen (the type of honey-roasted juicy peaches you don’t mind dribbling down your chin), Heading South (eggs with the works including chilli jam), and Grab a Granny (as in apple granola with rhubarb swimming in pistachio yoghurt), the menu is as creative as the food. The café caters perfectly for food intolerances and is committed to stepping lightly on the earth – check out the worm farm in the courtyard.
Ranges in Olinda
If you’re game to eat lunch after that, Ranges in Olinda is the place to go. Head chef Garth Talbot is another foodie with a background in French cuisine (and the requisite pedigree in Melbourne hospitality, having served his time at long-standing icon Koots Salle a Manger), and his new venture – while casual – serves a serious range of food in a lovely leafy setting.
Le Voltaire Bistro Francais in Belgrave
The French connection continues into the night. For a nice dinner out, Le Voltaire Bistro Francais in Belgrave – which only sprung up last June – is the type of place you wish just opened in your neighbourhood. That’s how locals feel about this cute little restaurant, owned by newcomer Jean-Noel Langlet, who moved here after 20-odd years as the waiter at Melbourne institution, France-Soir.
Offering all the Gallic classics (with a few Australian twists), his menu mightn’t win any awards for boundary-pushing, but it has won a legion of fans – advance bookings are in permanent order on weekends. Expect all the favourites – boeuf bourguignon, canard à l’orange, oysters shucked in front of you and, of course, snails – but with in-house churned butter, bread made from scratch and a well-balanced wine list of new- and old-world styles.
Much like the area itself, actually.
Elevation @ Emerald
There is something for everyone at Elevation @ Emerald, from woodfired pizza and pasta to seafood, steak and burgers. If you like to enjoy a stunning vista with your meal (and who doesn’t?), the floor to ceiling windows split over the restaurant’s two levels will give you sweeping views of the Dandenong Ranges.
Rustic, industrial charm is taken to the next level in this hardware store cum restaurant that is attracting diners from near and far. The Independent’s menu is designed with sharing in mind, boasting a variety of share plates in different sizes which is guaranteed to satisfy your taste buds as well as your appetite.
If you like your meal to come with a side of entertainment then the iconic Cuckoo Restaurant is the place for you. Best known for it’s world famous buffet, floor shows and German Goulash, the Cuckoo serves up traditional and modern European fare alongside good old fashioned family entertainment.