95, exhibition street
See the map
|Opening hours||Dinner Tuesday-Saturday (restaurant only; delicatessen and rooftop bar have different hours)|
|Features||Takes reservations, Tasting, Licensed, Bar, Outdoor terrace|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Call||03 9116 8682|
A few years ago, I had the absurd good fortune of being asked to travel the world and pick the world’s 30 best restaurants on my own. The project was in part for a travel-focused publication, so the criteria for what constituted “best” had as much to do with the culture of the place as it did with how delicious the food was. Rather than choosing 30 very fancy restaurants, I had to search for the soul of the city or the country and choose the restaurant that expressed that ineffable quality.
The project has profoundly affected the way I evaluate restaurants, especially those with big ambitions. This is especially true in Australia, where new hot spots are often adequate in all respects, but can be anywhere in the world. If you were thrown into it blind and only had the room, menu, food and drink as clues, would you know where you are?
Too often the answer is no. The food might be delicious, but you might as well eat it in Las Vegas, London, or…anywhere. (Obviously, this question does not extend to Japanese, Ethiopian or Mexican restaurants in Australia, although a hint of location when serving another country’s food can be exciting. But that’s a discussion different.)
That question never comes into play at Farmer’s Daughters, a restaurant that pays homage to Victoria, Gippsland’s great food bowl in every aspect.
The three-level venue opened in January last year, with a deli on the ground floor, a restaurant with tasting menu on the top floor and a rooftop bar. Like many restaurants in the COVID era, history has been made of crises and departures, closings and reopenings, but at this point, Farmer’s Daughters is firing on all cylinders. Executive chef and owner Alejandro Saravia is planning a second location for Federation Square this year.
The first-floor dining room is warm and modern, all in burnt honey wood and sage green upholstery, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Exhibition Street. Large native flower prints pair perfectly with the dark red tile flooring that lines the gleaming open kitchen, where chefs cook over hot coals in front of guests seated at the counter.
The cocktails are made with Australian spirits. The wine list is eclectic and international, but by my estimate 80-90% showcase Australian producers, especially those from Gippsland.
And the food is rooted in place, not just in terms of the ingredients, but also the soul of Gippsland – its cordiality, its simple goodness.
The five-course tasting ($125 per person) might start with venison, delicately smoked and wonderfully tender, served with greens and charcoal-charred broccoli, all infused with an ethereal whisper of lemony myrtle. It’s a bold choice to start with such an assertive meat, but the delicacy of the dish makes it an inspired choice.
The fish comes next: perhaps a mountain trout bathed in a milky cream drizzled with dill, mountain pepper and trout roe.
This is also the time of the meal when big chunks of black soda bread appear, sweet and deeply flavored, alongside the cultured cream. The sourness of the cream combined with the sweetness of the molasses in the bread makes it one of the best things I’ve eaten in weeks.
There’s usually an extra dish available ($25 per person) that you won’t need but will want, especially if it’s the tender rabbit loin wrapped in the comforting luxury of cream sauce. from Dijon. It reminded me of home cooking from my childhood, but kicked it up several notches.
At a time when service is almost universally wobbly due to pandemic-related labor shortages, it’s worth mentioning that the crew here is killing it. I saw things that would have baffled even the most professional team; here they were handled with skill and grace.
Interestingly, both people responsible for this menu and restaurant are foreign chefs – Saravia is Peruvian and chef David Boyle is Irish. Maybe sometimes it takes people from elsewhere to see and appreciate the specialness of something that we as locals might take for granted.
As someone who was born on a farm in East Gippsland and spent his early years wandering these leafy paddocks, I am extremely grateful that these two talented chefs have chosen this region as their inspiration – and this city as their place to demonstrate their passion.
Vibe: Fancy but not formal; a pleasant bustle anchored by the open kitchen
Essential dish: Smoked venison (in the $125 tasting menu)
Drinks : Lots of great Gippsland wines and beers; short cocktail list
Cost: $125 per person; optional wine pairings available from $85 per person
This review was originally published in Have a nice week end magazine