Friday, March 13, 2009

The closest thing to the Napa Valley - Sunday lunch at Bella Vedere Cucina

Last Sunday, on the occasion of a very dear girlfriend's birthday, I finally had lunch at Bella Vedere Cucina in the Yarra Valley. I've been hearing how fantastic it is since it opened in 2004, and since opening the shop last year it's been recommended by so many customers that it seems that every local foodie had been there except me .

Gary Cooper has been cooking and running restaurants in and around the Dandenongs and the Yarra Valley for many years, including the groundbreaking Wild Oak, which brought a style and standard of fine dining to an area better known for its devonshire teas, Sunday roasts & the Cuckoo restaurant. After time at Elinore's at the beautiful Chateau Yering, Gary and his business partner Tim Sawyer built Bella Vedere at Badgerbrook winery near Healesville from scratch. This place really is the complete package - set on a hill with gorgeous views, it is a lovely space with great atmosphere, friendly efficient staff and of course beautiful food, perfectly cooked. The restaurant has quickly established a big following among 'locals' and while, like many businesses in the region suffered a major downturn in trade because of the bushfires, this Sunday it was packed and buzzing with the sound of happy people enjoying a beautiful day.

It was grey and drizzly when we left my home in Ferny Creek, but by the time Helen and I crunched up the gravel drive through vines bedecked with thick black bunches of grapes, the sun was out, with a few wispy clouds in the sky. The damage from the recent fires was evident in the nearby hills, but the rain of the previous week meant there was no smoke haze.

The restaurant lies behind a heavy wooden door with a small sign showing you're at the right place. Walking past the open kitchen a beautiful display of cakes and tarts immediately solved that perennial dilemma - starter or desserts? Entering the main dining area felt as if we had walked into someone's home ( someone very wealthy and stylish and with a resident housekeeper, but you get the picture - warm and inviting). Tables are quite tightly grouped, meaning we could have eavesdropped on a conversation at the tables either side of us if we weren't so busy catching up and eating ourselves. Immediately upon being seated we were offered "tap water, still bottled or sparkling bottled water" (who would choose tap water, it sounds so unappetising against the alternatives) We were also presented with a sampling of the house-cooked breads - they don't scrimp on bread here and it is impressive - our favourite was the mustard seed (sourdough?). A champagne cocktail with ginger syrup and apple was a lovely opening. The huge roast loin of pork we had spied on the kitchen counter as we walked in made choosing mains easy, although we were momentarily tempted by the rabbit we saw at the next table and the pork belly sounded wonderful. Helen was less tempted by a dish of ox cheek.

The pork was perfect, a thick circle stuffed with couscous and sultanas with a crispy crackling and accompanied by baked figs studded with almonds and a side salad of heritage tomatoes and leafy greens. The tomatoes came from the Bella Vedere kitchen garden, and the free-range pork is locally and organically farmed by Christine Ross who breeds the heritage Large Black Pig.

Dessert was the standout for me - I've already said in a previous post what a sucker I am for a good lemon tart, and the Bella Vedere interpertation was stunning - a smooth and fragrant lemongrass tart, with none of the tartness of the classic, but instead with the subtle flavour of the herb.

It was a lovely way to finish a great meal and while, at $166 for two for 2 courses, a glass of viognier, a champagne cocktail and a coffee, Bella Vedere won't become my regular destination for Sunday lunch, I can see it becoming our standard special occasion venue. I can't wait now to take the family for breakfast and I'm told that Gary's dinners are an experience in themselves.

While waiting for desserts Helen and I wandered out to the verandah overlooking the vines and the kitchen garden to take in the sun and admire the view (and also pick up some ideas for my own kitchen garden). It occurred to me that while I can't always pop off to the Napa Valley for a beautiful lunch at a world-class restaurant, I am very privileged that I can do it in the Yarra Valley instead.

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