Time for a little test. Rack your brain, and try and think of a winery that boasts a fantastic restaurant attached. Keep thinking. Any luck? Well, if you have or haven't thought of any places, keep your mind open, because here is one more to add to the list: Avanti at Witchmount Estate Winery.
Yes, THAT Witchmount. The same winery that won the Syrah du Monde award for world's best Shiraz, the 2004 vintage. Plastered all over the news, the winery was the media darling, selling out of that particular vintage (and many others) in record time.
But we're not here to talk wine. We're here to talk food. And Avanti at Witchmount excels in this field. Winery restaurants can be notoriously simple, over-produced or expensive, but Avanti manages to tick all of the boxes while working within the limitations of the winery-restaurant tag.
Owner Joseph Brancaleone will meet you at the door, providing you've booked (and bookings are essential here), with a grin and a warm handshake. Running the original Avanti on Rathdowne St in Carlton, Joseph made the move to Avanti to raise the level of cuisine from typical winery-restaurant fare to comfortable, easy cuisine, done with a splash of ingenuity and a nod to classicism.
The dining room is an expansive mass of tables and chairs, shining glasses and cutlery and fresh flowers. This is a point of difference: this dining room feels like it is being taken care of, that the owners, managers and staff really take pride in its appearance. Appearances can be deceiving, but here, it bodes well for what is to come.
Take a seat on the (admittedly hard) wooden chairs, and peruse through the modern Italian-Australian menu. Specials really are special here, and change daily. Try your luck, but don't be afraid to ask what they are once or twice more: the onslaught of Italian words and names can be a little confusing.
Once the order is taken and you're comfy, the servuce comes into its own. While a little slow on busy nights (Saturday/Sunday), the waitstaff know the floor and traverse it with ease. Everything is taken care of efficiently, and without issue. Orders are yelled out across the room, waiters sign to each other, and Joe seems to glide from table to table, entertaining you with his life stories and unique observations about the world.
The food, well, not much to say here. Chef Bill Gornall pulls it all off with panache and flair, without ever seeming pretentious. Fish of the day with scallops and mussels on top is a highlight, mixing seafood with seafood for great results. Don't miss the ubiquitous bruschetta, not just done with tomato, but mixed with mushroom and a cream-brandy sauce. Moorish.
Although the desserts can be a little non-descript, a taste of the three house alcohols (Ori di Grappa, Strega, Averna) will top off the night nicely.
You'll leave the restaurant feeling like you've made good friends, and this is what a good eatery should do: great food, great service, comfortable surroundings. Good times.