Sunday, January 11, 2015

Provenance - knowing where good things come from

It took me only five years but I finally found my way to Provenance, the legendary regional restaurant established by chef Michael Ryan in Beechworth in 2010.

As regular visitors to Beechworth for decades, we had stayed there six or seven years ago in the accommodation tucked away at the back of the garden behind the restaurant, long before Provenance and long before the accommodation was refurbished. We had eaten in the restaurant as it was at the time. It was called of course The Bank, reflecting the original role at the height of the gold rush of the old 1856 Bank of Australasia building on Ford Street.

The entrance to 'Provenance' and the old bank that houses it.

Originally from Adelaide, with a background in chemistry, Ryan established Provenance with his partner, winemaker Jeanette Henderson, after almost a decade of involvement in the region. He was previously Head Chef at Milawa Cheese Factory and then won awards for Warden’s Food and Wine where, incidentally, we have eaten several times.

One of the best in regional Victoria
Provenance is widely considered one of the best restaurants in regional Victoria, in a tiny state that contains many good regional restaurants. In The Age Good Food Guide 2013 Michael Ryan won Chef of the Year and the restaurant was named Regional Restaurant of the Year and awarded two chefs hats. It was also listed in the Gourmet Traveller Top 100 Australian Restaurants in the same year. I had been meaning to eat there since it was established and given how regularly we travel to Beechworth and its surrounds I was amazed I hadn’t been earlier. It took some time but it was worth it.

The restaurant has a reputation for focusing on fine seasonal produce, usually local. It also demonstrates Ryan’s intense interest in the Japanese approach to cooking and shows this with great depth. It is innovative in a very profound way, with an integrated and coherent approach to what it presents.

Level of care and attention to detail established
It was a very impressive meal. While we thought about it we had some of their house made bread with whipped smoked miso butter. On their recommendation we started with the silken tofu starter, with shallots, crab, prawns, soy and pickled ginger. They told us that they make their own soy milk and set the curd just before the meal is served. I was starting to be really impressed – only two items into the meal and the level of care and attention to detail was already well established.

I was probably cheered further by the dry flor apera chilled sherry from Chambers of Rutherglen that I had with the tofu. When I started living in Sydney and spending large amounts of time in the Spanish Quarter round Liverpool Street in the City I drank a lot of Tio Pepe dry fino sherry. After this I think I am going to take up drinking sherry again.

The chef brought a small glass teapot
For my entrĂ©e I had cured cobia – black kingfish from North Queensland – with tomato and herb dashi, sake infused cucumber and sweet corn custard. The chef brought a small glass teapot to the table and poured over a stock made from kombu, with lemon verbena from the garden out the back of the restaurant. With this I had an impressive glass of local Domenica rousanne/marsanne. Peter Graham, the wine maker for new label Domenica used to be with noted makers Giaconda and has now gone out on his own.

My fellow traveller had the asparagus with seaweed butter, clams, pickled mussels and leeks and hung onto the glass of 2009 Castagna Allegro Rose sparkling from Beechworth that she had started the meal with.

We followed this with slices of wagyu beef, beetroot, radish, onion and shio koji sauce – a form of fermented rice sauce – and rhubarb. My fellow traveller had duck breast, sweet and sour zucchini, confit eggplant, puffed grains and lomo, a cousin of proscuitto. These were accompanied by a side dish of pak choy, with the restaurant’s own lap cheong Chinese sausage, akin to a chorizo, with housemade oyster sauce. With this we had a small carafe of local 2012 Golden Ball shiraz.

Then for dessert, we had a dish called leaves – fig leaf ice cream, rose scented geranium leaf posset, raspberry leaf jelly and green tea short bread and one called red fruits ­– adzuki beans, milk agar and umeshu gratin, which was like a fruit custard full of strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb.

Next door to Australia's fortified wine capital
We were so happy with our meal that we decided to finish the evening by celebrating being next door to Australia's fortified wine capital, Rutherglen, and being in a restaurant that had an extensive selection of Japanese Scotch whiskeys. Between us we had a glass of Campbells muscat and one of Hibiki 17 year old Scotch whiskey.

Herbs growing out the back of 'Provenance' restaurant.

This restaurant really ticks the regional produce box. At one point I heard the chef tell one of the neighbouring tables that ‘the carrots are from Steve in Stanley’. Stanley is just up the road and was where we often stay, either at Chestnut Farm Cottage or the Stanley Pub. In fact we had stayed in Stanley on this trip on our way down to Melbourne, and had eaten in the Stanley Pub only a week earlier.

It’s ironic that the accommodation has been redecorated in Chinese style. The old Chinese miners from the Beechworth region would be shocked. I doubt it reflects a nod to local heritage, more likely the increasing dominance of Asian influences which is also reflected in the Japanese interests of the Provenance chef.

On a side note, if you decide to stay there I recommend trying your very best to book the upstairs apartment. There are four apartments in the garden at the back of the restaurant and the upstairs one is far superior in terms of light, space and outlook. It is really the only one of the four that justifies the price tag.

Surrounded by vineyards stretching in every direction
On the way there we stopped at the TarraWarra Gallery of Fine Art to see the ‘Drunken Buddha’ series by Ian Fairweather. It’s interesting when you can’t decide whether you like the artwork, the building or the grounds more. The architecture and the setting were stunning, surrounded by vineyards stretching in every direction.

The Fairweather work came from the period when Australia was just discovering Asia, thousands of years after Asians discovered Australia. This was at a critical point in time in our long history of engagement with Asia, after generations of trade between the Yolgnu and the visiting Macassans and before the Asian Century had been announced.

This is a fabulous restaurant which is a part of that great Australian love affair with Asia which has so coloured our culture. If, like me, you haven’t dined here before, don’t miss out. I found the whole experience immensely exciting and enjoyable. Sometimes I can take or leave fine dining but everything about this was a treat – both excellent, imaginative food and a superb wine list that made the most of local stars. The chef may be a man of few words to the point of being taciturn but he can definitely produce very fine food. Luckily I gather that he signed a new five year lease for Provenance in late 2013 so you might have more than one chance to see what he can do.

See also

'tableland' on Facebook – life on the land and at the table
'Life on the land and at the table, the companion Facebook site to this blog, for brief and topical snippets and vignettes about land to table – the daily routine of living in the high country, on the edge of the vast Pacific, just up from Sydney, just down from Mount Kosciuszko', 'tableland' on Facebook.

Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale
‘I've always had a weak spot for Moss Vale in the Southern Highlands of NSW. I have been watching it slowly change over the decades since. The latest addition is a new and very funky bar, Wine Mosaic Lounge, combined with a wine vendor, Argyle Street Wine Merchant. Passing through, we stopped to sample it. We thought aloud ‘we must come back here soon’ – and we will’, Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale.

Big city myopia, regional cities and cool capitals – is Canberra cool and who really cares?
'I’ve been entertained by the heated discussion about whether Canberra is cool or not. The question of regional cities and cool capitals is one that won’t go away. Instead of endlessly comparing cities – Melbourne versus Sydney, Melbourne versus Canberra, Canberra versus Queanbeyan, Devonport versus East Devonport (as we did in my youth) – to gauge their degree of cool or of dismal, perhaps we’d be better seeking out the interesting places and features that lurk in every city, town and locality', Big city myopia, regional cities and cool capitals – is Canberra cool and who really cares?

Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo 
‘In winter your mind turns to food - well, it turns there anytime, but perhaps more so in winter. I can’t remember how many years I have been coming to Grazing restaurant, in the tiny historic town of Gundaroo, just outside Canberra – it seems like forever. In the time I’ve been coming here Prime Ministers have risen and fallen, Governments have teetered, illusions have shattered. On a Sunday recently, I ventured out from the cold of approaching winter on a clear, blue day and went there one more time for food, wine and firewood. I wasn’t disappointed’, Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo.

Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back
‘I seem to spend a lot of time in the small Italian and Sons restaurant in hipster heaven in downtown Braddon, with its equally small bar annexe, Bacaro, at the rear. It’s so good and so pleasant that it’s easy to forget the other parts of the Italian empire. The flagship restaurant, Mezzalira, is across the the city, near the National University. It’s in the fabulous but somewhat neglected though stately Melbourne Building, with its Italianate arches and colonnades. I sometimes think that if suddenly the world was about to end (a bit like contemporary times) and I was offered the choice of only one cuisine until the crunch, I’d have to choose Italian. That way I could die happy,’ Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back.

Ester – the sweet smell of success
‘Because the high country is adjacent to the low country, it takes only three hours to drive from the nation’s capital to the nation’s financial capital. In the early to mid 1990s Chippendale in Sydney was a suburb you travelled through to get somewhere else. All that is changing in a big way, with plenty there to explore. A sure sign of these times is eatery Ester, a restaurant that reflects the focus of its name on the science of food with some intrepid experiments in the culinary arts’, Ester – the sweet smell of success.

A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven
‘On a bustling Friday night in hipster heaven, I popped into my favourite Canberra restaurant, Italian and Sons, planning for little more than a quick bite to eat. I managed to get my favourite spot – when I’m not settled comfortably in Bacaro, the adjoining bar out the back, that is – sitting in the window, watching the action on the street. I headed straight for a real blast from my Adelaide past, part of my earliest discovery of Italian cuisine – saltimbocca. Then I beat a path down Lonsdale Street to Frugii, Canberra’s own dessert laboratory. What is happening to this city? It’s getting cooler by the minute and it’s not just the icecream or the approach of winter’, A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven.

Squatting on the main road – the Old Canberra Inn is new again 
‘The Old Canberra Inn has squatted on a main road in my vicinity for as long as I can remember – and obviously, as it was built in the 19th Century, as long as anyone else can remember. It seems to have changed hands – or maybe it’s just that I’ve finally looked at it more closely – but its a terrific local pub. It’s casual food that’s easy to enjoy, it’s local and it has a good range of drinks to wind up your day ­– what more do you need on a weekday after a bout of exercise when your muscles are just starting to be sore and your calves are mooing’, Squatting on the main road – the Old Canberra Inn is new again.

A princess comes home – paulownia trees and Japanese wedding chests
‘Recently I planted a new tree in my garden – a paulownia tree. I bought it because I have a 1930s Japanese wedding chest from near Tokyo made from kiri or paulownia, the very tree I have acquired and planted. It is named in honour of Queen Anna Pavlovna of The Netherlands (1795–1865), daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia. For this reason it is also often called ‘princess tree’ wood. It is very versatile – it has also been used in electric guitar bodies and in surboards in Australia. It was once customary to plant a paulownia tree when a baby girl was born and then to make it into a chest as a wedding present when she married. This is unlikely to be the fate of my tree but it’s comforting to know that at a pinch it could be uprooted and converted into a wardrobe for some deserving niece’, A princess comes home - paulownia trees and Japanese wedding chests.

I must go down to the sea again – Sailor’s Thai Canteen still cooking 
‘We went back to a favourite spot, Sailors Thai Canteen, established by renowned chef David Thompson who has now long relocated to Bangkok, where it all originates. There were just the two of us so we kept it simple. Remembring people and places. Memory is all we have to hold the world together. Memories of eating and drinking together are a big part of that. Eating, drinking and talking – about everything and nothing, till the cows come home’, I must go down to the sea again – Sailor’s Thai Canteen still cooking.

Peas in a pod – food takes off
‘Pod Food is in the heart of the slightly ramshackle gardening and nursery hub of Canberra, Pialligo , adjacent to the burgeoning exercise in urban growth called Canberra Airport. It was always the place you went to get large pots and even larger apples. Pod Food was always good enough – but now it is something a whole lot more impressive. On a rainy Friday I entered through their marvellous cottage garden entrance way to sit on the covered and contained outside deck. The entrance to Pod Food, formerly part of an operating nursery, is the sort of garden I eventually want to have. It felt highly suitable sitting at the entrance to the Australian high country as the rain came down, drinking the fine product of another high region on the opposite side of the world’, Peas in a pod – food takes off.

Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven
‘It had been quite a week and I had been crushed by too many encounters with the crazy world of Centrelink as I fulfilled my long list of aged care responsibilities. I needed cheering up so last night ate out at the venerable Italian and Sons, the very first of the many funky venues which now enliven Braddon. My attention was drawn to the rare appearance of vitello tonnato. My imagination had been captured decades ago when I was a young boy by seeing the recipe for the dish in Margaret Fulton’s classic cookbook. I finally tried it in a tiny restaurant in Florence, during my first visit overseas, after a stint at the massive Frankfurt Book Fair in 1989. This most recent one was the best I have ever eaten outside my own home – well, perhaps the best anywhere. This is a favourite place, probably my most favourite in Canberra. Coming here always makes me feel happy and what more can you ask?’, Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven.

Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century
‘On a day and night which was bitterly cold – as cold as Canberra has been this year, with the hint of snow clouds overhead – I was reminded why I live here. As we wandered along after a full day of cultural institutions and design events, looking for somewhere to eat we impetuously popped into Restaurant Eightysix and even more impetuously were able to get a table. I had forgotten reading somewhere that famed long-former Adelaide chef, Christine Manfield was here for the month, cooking up an Asian-inspired menu. How much better could it get?’, Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century.

Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo
‘Where the market gardens that supplied Canberra as far back as the 1820s used to be a small fortune has been spent turning 86 acres overlooking the Eastern end of Lake Burley Griffin into a superb regional restaurant, Pialligo Estate Farmhouse Restaurant. It made for a tremendous birthday lunch in a spacious airy and light space, full of exciting food treated well. I couldn’t take my eyes off the copper guttering and downpipes. I thought all the loose copper in the world had already been stolen but clearly it’s still available. It’s quite clear that even though work is still being finalised, when it is finished it will be a spectacular addition to the nation’s capital and the region’, Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo.

In praise of the Berra
‘When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say “if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died.” Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable. Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts. The Berra is half-way between everywhere’, In praise of the Berra.

No comments:

Post a Comment