A series of event started unfolding the night I discovered Giaconda wineries chardonnay at Attica, paving the way to the inevitable journey to Australia’s gourmet region of the High Country in Victoria. As my wife and I hadn’t been able to get away on our honeymoon yet, we decided we’d make the most of this “mini-moon”. Our weekend was packed with food related events ranging from the blue cheese making course with Anna-Kate Pizzini at the famous Milawa Cheese Factory, to the winery visits across the region. The icing on the cake was of course our indulgent two-night accommodation at Provenance’s luxurious suite and a full tasting menu dinner on our second night.
Originally from Adelaide, chef and owner Michael Ryan has been a strong advocate of the regions produce over the past 15 years. Following his success at Range with a respectable two-hat accreditation, Ryan has since moved on to his latest restaurant, Provenance, in the quaint little town of Beechworth. The restaurant occupied the old bank of Australasia that was built back in 1856, at the height of the gold rush.
The dining room boasting a six-metre ceiling, ornate rosettes, brass light fittings and original arched windows were reminiscent of the glorious gold rush era. Further impressive was the vault in its original state, built with thick granite blocks that now housed the wine cellar collected by Ryan’s wife Jeanette Henderson. At a quick glance of the wine menu, it was evident that the restaurant supported many of the great local wineries, and why wouldn’t they?
As we had opted for the weekend package, we were given a choice of two tasting menus (one vegetarian), and each course matched with wine. Gazing at the menu, it wasn’t difficult to see where Chef Ryan got his inspiration for cooking. From umeboshi to tsukudani, not to mention the matching wine option that was dominated by sake, I was surprised to see such a heavily Japanese influenced menu in a location like Beechworth. What was most impressive here was that Chef Ryan had managed to maintain some focus on regional ingredients and produce, whilst adding his Japanese twist.
Chef Ryan was kind enough to prepare last minute a plate of home cured charcuterie, cheese and bread the previous night when we arrived late from Melbourne. It was then that we had encountered this delicious smoked miso infused butter and an interesting bread that had been flavoured using okara (the leftover soy pulp from the process of making tofu). We were glad to see it on the table that night in the restaurant as we didn’t have the courage the previous night to venture out of our room to ask for more.
I thought I had a fairly good knowledge of sake, helped by being half Japanese of course, but many of the choices that night were foreign to me. The first match of the evening was the Matsuo Junmai Daiginjo, Nagano, 2010, Japan. Being a junmai daiginjo, it was refined, light and complex with elegant aromas.
Despite opting for the normal tasting menu, I was very curious to try the supplementary option of the House made silken tofu, shitake tsukudani, wasabi, ginger which was normally available for the vegetarian menu option. Chef Ryan had made the tsukudani himself and I was very impressed by the quality. Tsukudani is a popular Japanese method of preserving fresh food, typically seafood, meat or vegetable, by simmering with soy sauce and mirin in low heat until it reduces to a thick paste. The silky tofu was also of high quality and the dish itself a perfectly light starter to stimulate the taste buds. Given my Kanto heritage where I was accustomed to saltier food, I could have however done with a bit more soy sauce.
Next up was another sake I had never heard of by the name of Kirei Shuzo, Hachiku, 2012, Hiroshima, Japan. It had a vibrant fruity fragrance and flavours of oxidised pear with a sweet intensity. The finish was dominated by refreshing acidity and an almost tannic grape-seed astringency.
The second course of the evening, Vegetables, pickles, okayu sauce, puffed rice, umeboshi took me back to my childhood. The combination of okayu (rice porridge) and umeboshi (pickled plum) is the classic Japanese folk remedy for colds and I certainly remember having my fair share as a child. Obviously the dish here was far more sophisticated and enjoyable, and I did like the textural variation from the crunchy pickled vegetables to the crispy puffed rice. It was a comforting dish that married Japanese techniques with local vegetables. I admired Ryan’s courage as the umeboshi’s salty and sour taste is an acquired taste not often appreciated outside Japan.
The showcasing of the local produce continued with the Roasted cauliflower, raw cauliflower, yuzu dressing, fish floss, Sevilla Orange. We moved on to South East Asian flavours with the fish floss although I wasn’t convinced it added much to the dish. The roasted and pickled cauliflower however was remarkably delicious and I was impressed by the way in which he drew out the flavour of this humble brassica.
Matching the next course was another first with the Mukai Shuzo, Ine Mankai, Kyoto, 2013, Japan. The Master Brewer (Toji) of this family run business was one of the first female Master Brewer in Japan. The sake itself was made from an ancient variety of red rice. The rose petal coloured sake with high levels of sweetness balanced by high levels of acidity had a complex smokey cherry, vanilla and pickle aroma with a unique savoury and umami rich palate.
On to the Braised octopus, chickpeas, confit artichokes, chorizo, blood orange, green strawberries. There were quite a few strong flavours competing here and the octopus was borderline chewy although with a nice charred flavour to it. I personally find octopus to be a difficult dish to perfect in terms of texture and drawing out the delicate flavour. Compared to the other dishes we had that evening, this was definitely not in the same class.
Our first meat course of the evening commenced with a bit of humour with the Pork cheek cooked in hay, grain salad, blood pudding, crisp pork skin, coriander. Enjoyable crispy and crunchy textures from the pork skin, richness from the blood pudding and the pork cheek was tender and delicious. A lot of work and attention was paid to the preparation of this piggy’s food, the grain salad which formed the bed.
My second meat course was initially served to me as a wagyu cut. That was strange. I was confused as it certainly didn’t have the marbling nor could I recall it being on the menu. It was only after we had finished our course that a rather apologetic waitress came out to correct what we had which in fact was Cape Grim beef striploin, beets cooked in clay, beetroot jam, garlic, horseradish. Despite the flavours oozing from every bite, the cut was too thick to be served rare, making it slightly tough. I would have preferred a slightly fattier cut or a thinner piece of this Tasmanian breed.
And finally the last for the evening was Poached rhubarb, rhubarb jelly, buttermilk curd, gingerbread rosemary, lavender milk. A very pretty dish decorated with flowers that worked well as a palate cleanser. The poached rhubarb married well with the curd and gingerbread but I felt it was a weak dish to finish off what had been an enjoyable meal. I thought that something more hearty and warm would have been more appropriate given the cold temperature outside.
Despite the calm and collected demeanor of Chef Ryan, there was a lot going on with the cooking at Provenance. I admired Chef Ryan’s dedication and passion in introducing Japanese elements to his cuisine and this ambitious approach had certainly paid off with the likes of the silken tofu and home made tsukudani, not to mention his delicious miso infused butter which on its own is worthwhile coming back for. Whilst his meat dishes came across weaker, he demonstrated a far superior knowledge and skillset in handling vegetables; his confidence evidently stood out in those dishes. In hindsight (and of course that’s the beauty of hindsight) I would have opted for the full vegetarian tasting menu. Perhaps on our next trip…