BALLARAT DREAMING - December 2015
I visited Ballarat three years back courtesy of the local tourism body and came away wondering what I could write about. The only really promising feed was about the close and re-open elsewhere as something completely different. Nice heritage town with architecture that would soon allow filming of Dr Blake, and attract art shows such as the touring Archibalds, etc.
Just not much to eat!
I came back a year later and the winds of change were definitely blowing, at least down the side streets and occasional alleyway. A number of pubs had refurbished as decent bars with sometimes decent food but there was a new Thai, pizzeria and wine bar ... all worth a visit. More than that there was no reason for any compromise that they these were good for the country ... they would hold their heads high in Melbourne.
Ballarat seems to draw me back. Helping a friend fix an investment property, lunch on the way to Dunkeld, judging the local show's cooking contest. So, I'm back again ...
My favourite bolt-hole remains MITCHELL-HARRIS WINE BAR
Ex-Chandon winemaker John Harris opened this with his family based on their mutual love of good food and wine in a beautiful 120 year old former produce store in the heart of Ballarat CBD. It's the cellar door for Mitchell Harris wines (mostly Pyrenees), a retail outlet for a carefully chosen range of local and imported wines, but mostly it's a bar and restaurant that features the best of local vines and mostly local, organic produce.
Seems to get better and better ... food has evolved a little without getting too serious and wines are still the focus. Great place for a light lunch but best late afternoon with the fading sun softly and lighting up the whole room.
38 Doveton St Nth, Ballarat t. 5331 8931
CATFISH THAI ... a must visit!
The best dining in Ballarat? This is Thai food of the David Thompson school but with a purer heart than most that emulate his style with a more evident dose of sweet and sour.
A serious focus on fine ingredients lifts the game, sourced personally by chef/owner Damien Jones. This is serious food from "street food" starters that include an exemplary yabby betel leaf that defines all its ingredients, to elegant chicken dumplings floating in a fragrant broth. A gently spiced okra dish makes me change my mind about this often slimy vegetable and a perfectly deep-fried Orange Roughy retains the sweet flesh often lost in this traditional dish.
This service is warm and helpful and the creative touches and some very fine cooking makes it definitely Ballarat's best.
A very smart wine list chosen to suit the cuisine; wines by the glass are adventurous but provide great drinking pleasure with this food.
44 Main Road, Bakery Hill t. 5331 5248
Ballarat has retained more of its heritage buildings than most country towns. It also has the most glaring example of either blatant graft or simply inexplicable town planning I've ever seen. Where you would normally have crossed a bridge into the grand main street of the city centre you divert into single lane roads around a shopping mall built in the 60s. It destroys the majesty of an historic country town.
The second oddity of town planning is what is called City Square. By name this should be a beating heart of the city and this short segment of Armstrong Street next to Myer has been sculpted into a very attractive tree-lined mall. It's varied in layer and walkway and has huge potential to be filled with good restaurants and bars with patrons enjoying the outdoors in a protected part of the cityscape. But it has several large, non-interactive shopfronts that leave it simply a walkway with limited traffic access. Weird!
Around the corner I breakfasted at Little Bird Cafe a cute and popular cafe with most of the menu made in-house, and when itýs not it's with due consideration for the quality of the product. Decent coffee and tea.
205 Sturt Street, Ballarat t. 5331 1255
Even a foodie gets forced into a bit of culture and history, often with a "so what?" result. But my personalised tour of the Museum of Australia Democracy at Eureka made my day.
It's Australia's newest museum and is dedicated to democracy, and not in any trite, lecturing sense. While M.A.D.E commemorates and explains the role of the Eureka Stockade in shaping our nation in a way that even surprised the closet historian in me, it casts a broader net over the (ongoing) development of democracy worldwide. Located on the site of the 1854 Eureka Stockade uprising in Ballarat, it combines pop culture and interactive, engaging technology to tell the story.
The Power of Words exhibition includes famous speeches from the inspiring to the heartbreaking. From Paul Keating's The Redfern Address through William Wilberforce's Abolition of Slavery and Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream to Nelson Mandela's An Ideal for Which I am Prepared to Die, there remains poignant reminders that democracy is an ongoing journey.
Corner Stawell St South & Eureka St (Enter via Stawell St South) Ballarat
t. 1800 287 113
Lunch at Saltbush Kitchen retained the Australian theme
Saltbush Kitchen is on a tasty and creative adventure to bring delicious native Australian flavours to your table, and the "table" can be a picnic rug or a beanbag in the gardens.
Saltbush Kitchen, in the Eureka Gardens parkland
Corner Stawell St South & Eureka St (Enter via Stawell St South) Ballarat
t. 0404 738 628
CAPTAINS CREEK ORGANIC WINES
Missing the turn I took the scenic (AKA almost lost) route to Blampeid, checked out the revamped Swiss Mountain Inn, before a tasting at Captains Creek. Ballarat wines seem to have come of age in recent times. Whether that's a run of good to very good vintages, winemakers coming to terms with their fruit, or perhaps increasing vine age giving better raw materials to work with, it's increasing obvious in wines I've tried.
Captains Creek, owned by the same family for over 100 years, has been a proudly pioneering organic far since 1985. Chardonnay and pinot noir were planted in 1994, joining an apple orchard that includes both eating and cider varieties.
The elevated view over the surrounding country makes it a good weekend lunch venue, current vintages looking better and better and the bottle-fermented cider the real thing.
Kangaroo Hills Road, Blampied
t. 5345 7408
With beans from Sensory Lab, and meticulous care in brewing your coffee preference, FIKA has quickly gained the reputation for the best coffee in Ballarat. They keep the food simple but, from sandwiches, scrolls and doughnuts, it's good stuff.
I had a fabulous cup of coffee but there is another coffee contender in Ballarat.
36A Doveton Street, Ballarat
t. 0427 527 447
THE FORGE PIZZERIA
The Forge was at the forefront of the dining resurgence that hit Ballarat in the last few years. The vast warehouse space doesn't lack for ambience, with old wooden tables and cutlery in flour sifters on the table. Staff are friendly and the food ventures further than just good pizze with entrees using quality ingredients in smart renditions of bistro classics. The daily specials showcase the season and can be the best way to go.
It's interesting that a pizzeria can be one of the highlights of dining out ... this is!
14 Armstrong Street North, Ballarat
t. 03 5337 6635
Yesterday was 33 degrees and wild and windy, today I wake to 4 degrees and rain.
The suggestion for breakfast is Eclectic Tastes out near the shores of Lake Wendouree where it's also wild and windy. The door is locked and I peer in. The staff see me and one opens the door only an unwelcoming crack ...
"We don't open until 9 o'clock ... it's only ten minutes".
I think it's the "only ten minutes" that gets me. Who's most affected? I'm standing in driving rain! Itýs still only 6 degrees! The car ... my only refuge ... hasn't even warmed up!
How about "come on in, but the kitchen doesn't open for 10 minutes"? Somebody can't spell "hospitality". "Five rooms decked out with junk shop treasures ... an Asian inspired menu" doesn't appeal enough for me to wait in the cold.
2 Burnbank Street, Ballarat
t. 5339 9252
It takes the promise of the new wave of hospitality for Ballarat to sport a dedicated beer retailer. And thereýs no "beer-that-tastes-like-beer" at COACHHOUSE ALE. This is specialty stuff with a section for locals, for other Australian craft beers and a smart selection of imports.
Housed in the old coach house north of the station on Lydiard Street this was fascinating even for this virtual non beer-drinker.
t. 0418 423 303
Ex-copper and local Peter Bothe and his wife Jill purchased the NINTINGBOOL WINERY property in 1982 establishing an extensive Australian native garden orchard. Diversifying into pinot noir grapes as an agri-business was successful as other vineyards snapped up the grapes until a bumper season in 2004 led to the leftovers being vinified under the property's name, and the grapes now all go under the estate label. Tasting through the 2015 barrels I can only think that was a very good thing.
Located on the south-west of Ballarat at Smythes Creek it only opens occasionally.
t. 5342 4393
Websters Market & Cafe is the new kid on the block and still sorting itself out - there were no fewer than six floor staff for a 50 seats indoors and out the day I visited - and a licence is under application.
This is a place where the menu entices, where you want to try several things and have to settle for an excellent squid ink pasta with saffron, chilli and prawns.
This is the other contender for best coffee in town with Industry Beans espresso presented on a long plate with a glass of soda to enhance the coffee.
t. 5331 2498
Mick Nunn, the chef/owner of The Forge, is a man who doesn't stay still for long setting up SALT KITCHEN CHARCUTERIE to fill what he saw as a need in the market. Using Western Plains Pork and skills gained from visiting artisan producers in key European areas he is already selling everything he can produce, expanding at a rate that doesn't compromise the quality of the product.
t. 0458 310 379
The latest venture by the George is their Hop Temple, their specialty beer hall in the lane behind the hotel dining precinct. The range of beer is an extensive array of Australian craft with the closest to mainstream being Coopers. Sadly a wine drinker would be disappointed here as the selection is uninspiring. The menu is pub/bistro and Iým reliably told the burger is excellent.
t. 5317 7158
This Spanish place in a lane off that has been a mystery since I've been visiting Ballarat. Nobody raved but nobody damned it. The consensus seemed to weigh towards the positive.
It's a quaint room with boxes of beer and wine decorated to high shelves and posters stuck on walls. All a bit messy but in that old-fashioned decorative way. The menu(s) are also messy for my orderly mind with a tatty tapas card, a folder with long list of raciones and other dishes, and the specials blackboard.
I started on the specials board and had good, simple sardines and the most tender, sweet octopus then a Moorish dish of crisp fried eggplant drizzled with tangy molasses. All good, the last interesting and needing to be shared. Call me a pork nazi as I love a good pig but the slow cooked pork was just ordinary meat swimming in an odd tasteless oily dressing. An ordinary Crema Catalana finished.
Staff are friendly and the chef makes frequent appearances delivering dishes to tables and entering brief discussions if pushed.
Meigas was a mixed result that could have been better if I hadn't gone off piste. A shorter, more orderly menu would help the diner and probably the kitchen. A wine list with vintages also.
They're moving up-town in the new year so timing is opportune.
Soon to move to 33 Armstrong Street South, Ballarat
t. 5331 9444