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Its a finely wrought, elegantly presented dish that stood out in an array presented by some the regions top restaurants during a promotional lunch at Port Phillip Estate a few weeks ago.
Importantly, it made me want to sample more of Hills food and, I admit, it was justification for another lunch on a gorgeous autumn afternoon in Red Hill.
Locals are understandably proud of the Mornington Peninsulas food and wine scene. Regional wines have been winning acclaim for many years, but more recently a growing number of restaurants have gained accolades too. So, this year, the 21-year-old wine weekend (June 9-11) has a strong emphasis on the areas cuisine.
Nine award-winning venues La Petanque, Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove, Port Phillip Estate, The Long Table, Tractor Restaurant, Salix Restaurant, Maxs at Red Hill Estate, Two Buoys café and Paringa Estate are participating in the Saturday session at Red Hill Showgrounds, alongside 150 wines from about 50 wineries.
For Hills, who moved to the area late last year, its an opportunity to showcase his European-inspired food and his admiration for the wines created by Paringa Estates owner, Lindsay McCall, which six months ago lured him away from The Courthouse in North Melbourne.
Hills has worked in the US, Spain and Andorra, and in Melbourne, also in the kitchens of The European and Middle Brighton Baths. He employs classic flavour combinations that, in turn, work with McCalls refined and often complex wines.
Despite a wine tasting before lunch, I didnt match the wines I had with my meal as well as I might have. I chose a glass of the estate-grown pinot gris with my poached marron entrée. The fine shellfish offering was surrounded by a gorgeous autumn-toned swirl of buttered carrot and chorizo purée, delicate chards of grilled leek and cubes of chorizo and paprika-oil flavoured jelly.
The crisper notes of the pinot gris would have paired more favourably with my main dish a respectfully treated fillet of blue-eye served beside a rich haricot bean ragu, finished with delicate strands of just-cooked cuttlefish. Its accompanying sauce nero a finely textured marriage of squid ink, lemon and black garlic was given body and texture with judicious use of potato.
The fad for wine matches listed on menus has faded, hasnt it? But it would work rather nicely in this setting.
My dining companion enjoyed the same pinot gris with his confit pork belly entrée, which was carefully rolled and married with toasted fennel and garlic, and accompanied by a pair of mirror-image pieces of excellent orange and broad-bean-filled tortellini. A delicate walnut vinaigrette brought the flavours together.
With his main dish a poached and roasted duck breast, with a braised leg and hazelnut croquette he went for a classic pinot pairing, choosing the estates award-winning 2009 vintage. Its cherry and spice flavours worked nicely with the crisp-skinned poultry, its sweet date purée and its finishing touches of orange and fennel.
Hills food and McCalls wines are an excellent pairing, that, I think, will continue to send the accolades flowing south.
Andy Doughton is making his Flinders mussel and house-smoked pork-belly chowder. Its one of two dishes that the nine-year-old The Long Table restaurant in Red Hill is preparing for this Saturdays wine fest.
A divine-smelling ham stock has been pre-prepared, as has a buttery-looking purée that Doughton calls corn cream. As he talks about his restaurant, his cooking and his love of things local, Doughton is covering the base of a cast-iron pan with timber chips, dried vine leaves and hazelnuts. A saucer-sized piece of pork belly is tucked in the centre.
He sets the pan over a roaring jet and shakes it until its kindling catches alight. He covers it with a matching pan and puts the combination in the oven for a few minutes. Meantime, he dices handsome-looking jersey blue potatoes, shows me the delicate dehydrated pork skins hell use for garnish and raves over the Flinders
The Verdict Somewhere special
The picturesque vineyard setting more than makes up for the 90-minute drive from Melbourne, and inside this charming restaurant and cellar door, the chunky, stone-wrapped fireplace, corrugated-iron cladding around the bar area, timber-lined ceilings and terracotta-tiled floors create a classic rusticity. Leadlight windows featuring plump purple grapes are reflected in the matching tones of a low-slung corner couch setting, but most of the colour comes from the stunning backdrop of grapevines against the hills beyond. Crisp white tablecloths add a touch of formality.