Provenance, Beechworth – inspired by Japan
The plaudits for chef Michael Ryan and his Provenance restaurant at Beechworth just keep coming. Awarded a double in The Age Good Food Guide last year (regional restaurant of the year and chef of the year), it was high time this foodie outpost in Victoria’s north-east merited a visit. The occasion was gluttonous husband’s birthday. As resident chef at Casa Greedy Girl, it was a treat for him to have a night off from the stove. Happily we headed off on the three-hour drive from Melbourne with extremely high expectations.
And we weren’t disappointed.
Beechworth’s town centre has been meticulously maintained to echo the bygone colonial era, particularly the town’s heyday during the gold rush. It would be easy to imagine airbrushing away the cars and wandering tourists and replacing them with drays and grizzled prospectors. Provenance, likewise, maintains the heritage feel, housed in an old bank building constructed in the town’s main street at the height of the rush. But these days, the gold is to be found on the plates and in the glasses at this extraordinary gastronomic treat. Stumbling into the high-ceilinged dining room from one of the four on-site suites at the rear of the property, Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband received a warm welcome and, shortly after, the food and wine started to flow.
We took a package deal – a night’s accommodation plus the six-course degustation with matching wines. There are some optional courses – a ‘pre-starter’ of silken tofu with a glass of Larmandier-Bernier blanc de blancs champagne. We decided to take the champagne to toast gluttonous husband’s glorious anniversary but not the tofu. Tis the season for lots of food – a little moderation was in order.
First up was some stunning house-baked bread. An oatmeal soda bread with goats milk and an incredible sourdough, served with whipped miso butter. Yum. The addition of miso, as well as an inordinate number of bottles we’d spied on shelves with Japanese characters gave no doubt that the chef is rather inspired by Japanese cuisine. Later, he told us he generally travels to Japan twice a year and, in May 2014, is hosting a culinary tour there, but I digress.
We moved to the first course – vegetables, pickles, okayu sauce, puffed rice and umeboshi (pictured above). The okayu sauce is essentially a rice porridge but this was incredibly light and intense, as was the umeboshi – the little red dot of Japanese plum on the right of the plate. This was a very good start. This was served with a tiny carafe of cold Sake – a Hitihonyari ‘Wataribune’ from Shiga. Apparently this sake has a very high percentage of polished rice grains – the higher this percentage, the greater the quality.
It was then on to one of the best vegetarian dishes Greedy Girl has ever tasted – varied treatments of cauliflower with yuzu (Japanese citrus) dressing, cumquat and ‘fish floss’. The fish floss is fish that has been rendered down to create the crumbs you see in the picture. The roasted and raw cauliflower worked extremely well together to provide texture and crunch and it was a light and refreshing plate. This was paired with the first of the evening’s local wines, a Dal Zotto Arneis from the King Valley. Arneis is a white Italian grape from Piedmont (apparently it means ‘little rascal’ in the local dialect) and the King Valley is noted for growing Italian varieties. Not usually a fan of white wines, it went splendidly with the food.
To be able to savour the wines, we’d asked our lovely English waitress to ensure the pace of food allowed us to finish each glass before we moved on to the next dish. In so many dinners where we’d opted for a wine pairing, the pace of food was so fast it necessitated guzzling the wine to keep up. Not a problem, was the response, and the leisurely pacing was very luxurious.
On to the third course, which was presented by the chef. It was braised eel with black fungus, chrysanthemum leaves and a ‘teapot soup’. (Apologies for the quality of the pictures but the dining room became quite dark and most dishes were presented on black plates). This is where Greedy Girl became rather confused. As gluttonous husband heartily tucked in, she cast her mind back to reading the menu at the start of play. Given eel is not a huge favourite, it’s something that would have ‘jumped out at her’ on the menu. As is her practice (to assist blogging later), she’d taken a picture of her menu. No eel – instead there was a dish of prawns with a prawn bisque.
Ne’er mind, she tried the dish. Eel was really the star of the show here and although the broth (poured over the dish at the table) was tangy and delicious, and she enjoyed the fungi, the eel was far too strong. She sampled it twice and sent the rest over to gluttonous husband. While drinking her Rodda Chardonnay, from Beechworth (more on that later). She asked the server for the menu again, just to ensure she wasn’t totally crazy. When the one that arrived on the table had no mention of prawn, she showed the picture from her phone, saying that, if she’d known eel was part of the menu she would have asked for a substitution. Apologies all round, a rogue menu had slipped into the mix. No dramas.
Greedy Girl kept trying to sip her chardonnay, which the other waitress described as her current obsession. It had a very, very odd flavour on its own, almost harsh. It certainly needed to be consumed alongside such a strong dish. Greedy Girl offered the rest of her glass to gluttonous husband, who happily tucked in. The waitress said the qualities of the wine changed as it came up to room temperature. Gluttonous husband agreed it was softer for having lost some of its chill.
Moments later, the other waitress returned. They wanted to offer us the prawn dish from Greedy Girl’s menu so that we ‘didn’t miss out’. Starting to groan under the weight of food and wine, Greedy Girl almost said ‘never mind’. Hah. They don’t call me Greedy Girl for nothing. This was barbecued prawns with zucchini, coastal succulents (samphire) and a prawn bisque. It was utterly yummy. The chef also presented this dish and offered up the tidbit that his zucchini supplier also ran the local gun shop. Diversifying in business is never a bad thing … It was served with the first of the evening’s reds, a 2012 Oxenbury Vineyard Nebbiolo, also sourced locally. This was an exceedingly light red and, while enjoyable, wasn’t a rave.
Bellies filling up quickly, there were another two savoury courses to come. First up was pork cheek cooked in hay, with a grain salad, blood pudding, crispy pork skin and coriander. The grain salad gave the dish a fair amount of bulk and worked well against the softness and tenderness of the pork. The coriander was quite startling in the mouth and not one of Greedy Girl’s preferred flavours so she left most of that behind. This was a dish where a little of all the elements needed to get on the one forkful – the blood sausage was incredibly rich so needed ‘light and shade’. The standout for Greedy Girl was the discs of crunchy pork skin. A serious yum. The dish was served with a ‘Quasimodo blend’ from Eldorado Road – about 10 minutes’ drive from Beechworth. It was a quite heavy, intense red.
The final savoury course was Sher wagyu beef, eggplant, braised daikon, ginger sauce and candied kombu. The beef had been just seared and gluttonous husband smiled at its glistening ruby colour. The disc of eggplant had soaked up the ginger flavour and was again too strong for Greedy Girl who prefers just a hint of ginger. She happily ate everything else on the plate and washed it down with a 2010 Golden Ball ‘Gallice’ Cabernet blend (Cabernet, Malbec and Merlot she thinks). It was a nice pairing but we were seriously struggling under the weight of food and wine.
And so to dessert (there’s an optional cheese plate but Greedy Girl’s cholesterol levels mean that’s not on the menu for the time being). Wooragee (a nearby spot) strawberries were presented with green tea sherbet, and a shiso meringue. The strawberries were utterly delightful but Greedy Girl’s yet to be convinced about the merits of using green tea in anything other than, well, a cup. The shiso meringues were tiny little crunchy counterpoints. There was a choice of dessert wines on offer with this. Greedy Girl took the Domain Pichot Moelleux from Vouvray in France, while gluttonous husband opted for a very cloudy-looking Umetsu Nokyou Umeshu from Tottori in Japan. This plum sake was certifiably flammable but gluttonous husband commented he thought it worked better with the dessert than the French wine.
And we were over and out. It was close to midnight and we trundled down the garden path to our room.
Provenance is an unusual and exciting food opportunity and staying onsite means there’s nowhere to drive to be truly adventurous and experience the matching wines. There were some incredibly good pairings with this menu. Still, there’s a lot to get through and Greedy Girl questions whether she could pit her liver against such a variety of alcohol again in future.
Beechworth itself is replete with places to eat. Perhaps in cooler weather it would be enjoyable spot to spend a few days eating and sampling through the town and the surrounds.
86 Ford Street, Beechworth