Monday, June 29, 2009

Sunnybrae - Saturday Lunch

The first time we ate at Sunnybrae was destined to also be the last because we had managed to book for the weekend before George Biron was due to close the for want we then thought would be forever. Happily George and Diane have reopened the restaurant but getting there has become more of a challenge because we now live in Sydney. However there is no eating challenge which can’t be overcome!

Just outside Birregurra, a short drive from Geelong through beautiful countryside, Sunnybrae is my idea of paradise. George and Diane have restored a little 1860s cottage for their home and added a huge kitchen and cosy restaurant surrounded by a garden which grows many of the ingredients used in the wonderful long lunches they serve at the weekends. The atmosphere here is warm and homely - as it should be since all that separates the diner from George’s lounge room is the kitchen. The big windows in the dining room look out on to the garden, the walls are lined with George’s food books and Diane’s artworks, the menu is handwritten and features the best of what's available locally which George can source on the day. It is just like going to lunch with friends except that none of my friends can produce food quite like this.

We started with a Roman-style broth with drizzled egg and parmesan served with potato bread - one of those deceptively simple dishes that only work because of the care put in to preparing the broth. What I like most about George’s food is that there are always a few surprises, flavour and/or texture combinations which make you stop and think. Here the food is not just about demonstrating the ingenuity and skill of the chef and there is no pretentiousness or artifice. Rather the menu is about the ingredients and demonstrates George’s enthusiasm and curiosity and intelligence.

So we get to try tarama with fennel and garlic salad; a fresh cheese, lightly smoked in the wood oven with young carrots; Spanish-style jamon; tomatillo guacamole with pomegranates; and celeriac, parsnip and leek strudel with an anchoiade.

By the time we’ve sampled all these delights a stroll around the garden is pretty much mandatory. It is one of those early winter days Victoria does so well – still and grey, slightly damp, cool but not cold – and the vegetable garden is resting, getting its strength back ready for the spring. On this weekend there are also two private parties in the two other rooms adjacent to the main restaurant so there are quite a few others wandering in the outdoors with their wine glasses. On a sunny afternoon it would be perfect to spend a bit of time in the courtyard (with the wood fired oven and the barbecue) or sitting on the verandah contemplating the landscape.

Refreshed we settle back for the main dish of slowly braised goat shanks with chestnuts and quinces served with potatoes baked with garlic and thyme and a salad which incorporates succulents from the garden – rock samphire and Aptenia cordifolia (which is one of those things I’m sure you would recognise if you saw it). There were other dishes available for those not keen on goat but if goat was what George thought we should try then it was good enough for me. And good it was – tender and juicy with that indefinable something that tells you that these are not lamb shanks. For me the salad was a bit of a revelation. Here were the fleshy leaves of plants I have growing in the garden for decoration and here we were eating them!
The dessert list was extensive – seven choices in all including a cheese plate. I can never go past quinces – pot roasted, served with bay leaf and honey ‘panna cotta’ and a quince ice-cream – my other half can never go past rice pudding – saffron rice pudding with mandarins and a nectarine and lime ice-cream.
Lunch started at 12.30 and it was 5 o’clock before we waddled out to the car to make our way back to Geelong!

This sort of dining is more than the sum of its parts – the comfortable, relaxed, not-all-the-chairs-match atmosphere; the friendly, attentive service; the thought and care which goes into the food preparation and sourcing the range of tastes and ingredients; the obvious enjoyment of all the patrons - these all add up to something that is more than just a very enjoyable lunch. You come away feeling that you have been part of something, learnt something, shared a little bit of George’s passion.
And you can keep in touch with George’s passion through his blog .His recent posting (A Winter’s Tail, Tongue and Cheek 23 June 2009) is a perfect example of his approach to food. Next on my wish list is to spend more time in Birregurra, have lunch with George at the weekend and then attend one of his cooking classes on Monday.

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