95 Exhibition St
|Opening hours||Dinner Tue-Sat (restaurant only; deli and rooftop bar have different hours)|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Degustation, Licensed, Bar, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $ 40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9116 8682|
A few years back, I had the preposterous good fortune of being asked to travel the globe and single-handedly pick the world’s 30 best restaurants. The project was partly for a travel-focused publication, so the criteria for what constituted the “best” had as much to do with the culture of the location as the deliciousness of the food. Rather than pick 30 very fancy restaurants, I had to search out the soul of the city or country and pick the restaurant that expressed that ineffable quality.
The project deeply affected the way I appraise restaurants, especially ones that have high ambitions. This is especially true in Australia, where the hot new places are often adequate in every way but could be anywhere in the world. If you were dropped into them blind and had only the room, the menu, the food and the drinks as clues, would you know where you were?
Too often the answer is no. The food might be delightful but you could just as easily be eating it in Las Vegas or London or… anywhere. (Obviously this question does not extend to Japanese or Ethiopian or Mexican restaurants in Australia, although a hint of place when serving another country’s food can be thrilling. But that’s a different discussion.)
This issue never comes into play at Farmer’s Daughters, a restaurant that pays homage to Victoria’s great food bowl, Gippsland, in every aspect of its being.
The three-level venue opened in January last year, with a deli on the ground floor, a tasting-menu restaurant on the floor above, and a rooftop bar. Like many COVID-era restaurants, the story has been one of fits and starts, lockdowns and re-openings, but at this point Farmer’s Daughters is firing on all cylinders. Executive chef and owner Alejandro Saravia is planning a second venue for Federation Square this year.
The first-floor dining room is warm and modern, all burnt-honey woods and sage-green upholstery, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Exhibition Street. Large prints of native flowers are a perfect color match for the deep-red tiling that lines the gleaming open kitchen, where chefs cook over live coals in front of guests at counter seats.
Cocktails are made with Australian spirits. The wine list is eclectic and international, but by my estimate 80 to 90 per cent showcase Australian producers – particularly those from Gippsland.
And the food is rooted in place, not just in terms of the ingredients, but also the soul of Gippsland – its heartiness, its straightforward goodness.
The five-course degustation ($ 125 a person) might begin with venison, delicately smoked and wonderfully tender, served with greens and broccoli charred over the coal fire, the whole dish imbued with an ethereal whisper of lemon myrtle. It’s a bold choice to begin with such an assertive meat, but the delicacy of the dish makes it an inspired choice.
Fish comes next: perhaps a mountain trout bathed in milky cream shot through with dill, mountain pepper and trout roe.
This is also the point in the meal where large hunks of dark soda bread appear, sweet and deeply flavored, alongside cultured cream. The sourness of the cream paired with the molassess-weetness of the bread makes for one of the best things I’ve eaten in weeks.
There is usually a supplementary dish available ($ 25 a person) which you won’t need but will want, especially if it’s the tender rabbit loin swathed in the comforting luxury of Dijon cream sauce. It reminded me of the home-cooking of my childhood, but elevated several notches.
In an era when service is almost universally wonky thanks to pandemic-related labor shortages, it’s worth mentioning that the crew here is killing it. I saw things that would have thrown off even the most professional team; here they were handled with deftness and grace.
It’s interesting that the two people responsible for this menu and restaurant are chefs from overseas – Saravia is Peruvian and head chef David Boyle is Irish. Perhaps sometimes it takes folks from elsewhere to see and appreciate the specialness of something we, as locals, might take for granted.
As someone born on a farm in East Gippsland, and who spent her early years roaming those deep-green paddocks, I am intensely grateful that these two talented chefs chose this region as their inspiration – and this city as the place to showcase their passion.
Vibe: Fancy but not formal; a pleasant bustle anchored by the open kitchen
Go-to dish: Smoked venison (part of the $ 125 tasting menu)
Drinks: Lots of great Gippsland wines and beers; short cocktail list
Cost: $ 125 a person; optional wine pairings available starting at $ 85pp