Provenance restaurant, Beechworth
Trips away sometimes sound like “treats” for us at Eat Drink Sleep Shop Australia because we try to sample something new and different. And we realise it’s often that way for you, our viewers, unless you’re business travellers or in the Grey Army. So while in Beechworth recently we took our host’s advice and booked in at what we were told is the best restaurant in town, The Provenance, 86 Ford St, right across the road from Freeman on Ford where we were staying: Chef (and owner) Michael Ryan and sommelier Jeanette Henderson. According to the website: “Michael Ryan’s approach to food is best described as regional contemporary; contemporary in terms of design and textures and regional with an emphasis on local and seasonal produce of the highest quality. This produces menus of originality without losing sight of traditional foundations. Provenance, in its first year of operation, received one chef’s hat from The Age Good Food Guide and two chef’s hats in its second year. Provenance (continues the website) is ranked at No. 31 in the Gourmet Traveller Top 100 restaurants of Australia.”
We arrived at 8pm on a Saturday and were seated promptly, without fuss. Drinks? We couldn’t decide so when Pip suggested she’d like a gin and tonic, I concurred, and our waitress suggested we try a Fifty Pounds Gin with their preferred mixer, the UK-based Fever Tree Indian tonic. According to that website, “Fever Tree (is) the colloquial name for the Cinchona Tree in which quinine, a key ingredient for tonic, is found”. Let’s try not to gush here but this tonic came as a complete surprise, different altogether from the run-of-the-mill mixers we had used previously. If we can find a reliable supplier, we’ll take it from here. Drinks happening, I chose “an anchovy and its fried bones” from the starters menu, and Pip selected “House made silken tofu, marinated seafood, soy, pickled ginger, salmon roe”. It’s fun to see what “an anchovy and its fried bones” actually looks like and for $4, what have you got to lose? Yummy and salty, it was, this late fish, and like Jack’s giant, I was able to grind its bones in my teeth. Pip found the tofu delicate and delightful. We moved at a measured pace to mains: (for me) Braised Berkshire pork neck, rich pork sauce, egg yolk, cabbage and poached cuttlefish salad, burnt garlic oil; (for Pip) Roasted lamb ribs, broad beans, smoked potato, cucumber, mint, chilli Myrtleford buttermilk sauce; (and to share) a salad of Stanley organic rocket, orange, Beechworth olives and parmesan. To accompany these, we selected a bottle of Bobbie Burns Shiraz from Campbell’s at nearby Rutherglen. I notice it’s not on the wine list published on the website, but there you go, it was available on the night. Our friend Geoff Turner had recommended this drop and it was worth every penny and brought back memories of our visit to the Campbells’ cellar door in July last year. Dessert? I chose the cheese: Berry’s Creek Blue (a Blue on cow’s milk from Gippsland) with quince jelly, saba, walnut bread. Pip selected a special of the evening, an apple terrine. Total for the evening, $198.50: about right, we think.
Now I could go on and on about the flavours available in this menu but I’ve come to realise it’s not just the flavours but the complexity and originality of the combinations which the chef is selling. The end result of food, after all, is taste first (including look and aroma) and then nutrition. But how we get down that road, that’s where the value is created. The intricacy of the “anchovy and its fried bones” is something you would never try at home because it’s way too fiddly but in a restaurant, for a “treat”, yes, we discovered it was well worth the trouble … his trouble, in his kitchen. To locate and then braise a Berkshire pork neck, prepare and then drizzle over the neck a rich pork sauce and then combine this with an egg yolk and a salad of cabbage and poached cuttlefish salad dressed with burnt garlic oil … this takes imagination, experimentation, not a little bravery and quite a lot of quality assurance in the production. Sourcing these ingredients is also undoubtedly expensive and time consuming, given the short shelf life of foods and Beechworth’s distance from the major providores in Melbourne (a three-hour drive). It takes staff to do all this, and then other staff to manage the tricky end-game of plating and serving, looking after the customers as all the market and kitchen work is put to the test. Of course, later, more staff to remove the plates, clear up (and wash up in the kitchen) and at the last moment, it takes software, EFTPOS equipment and training to collect the money and keep the patrons happy as they actually leave for home. All that imagination, complexity, training and wages for $37 per main course says to me that The Provenance represents excellent value for money, given everything they have to do to get that money. Oh yes, one more thing … out of that $198.50, $18.05 flies off to the government as goods and services tax! So all that earlier purchasing, rent, light, furniture, staff and expertise lavished on us during 2 hours on Saturday night brought in the sum total of $180.05. Whew, who’d be a restaurant owner?