Fine dining is a very tricky business to be in; the better you are at it, the higher everyone's expectations are. And everyone has different expectations.
Personally, my criteria for fine dining are that I expect to be eating something that I would not have the skill or inclination to cook at home, and I want the opportunity to eat something that I have never tried before or something familiar prepared in a way I haven't tried before. It has to taste great, and it has to engage more than just my taste buds - I want it to look, smell and feel good as well.
Not much to ask, really. But that's why I'm prepared to pay more for a meal like this. I'm not a professional food critic, I just know what I like.
Recently, after a longish (child-imposed) absence from nice restaurants, my husband and I had the great pleasure of having lunch in the Quince Dining Room at the Healesville Hotel. The occasion was our wedding anniversary, though we didn't inform the restaurant of this.
The Healesville Hotel fine dining room has had a very good reputation for some time. With a focus on showcasing local seasonal produce wherever possible and an exciting menu, it has enjoyed accolades such as regular mentions in The Age Good Food Guide (and receiving one hat in the 2009 edition) and Hall of Fame Award from Gourmet Traveller magazine for the Best Pub Restaurant Winelist in Australia.
However, according to the gentleman handling front of house, in recent times things have been a little up and down as they have turned over some of their staff, but the team in there at the moment is doing a magnificent job.
The wonderful food is complemented by a terrific choice of local wines and excellent service. Due to the difficulty in finding someone prepared to mind a very young baby, we were forced to take our baby son with us, but the restaurant didn't blink at all at our request for a table that could accommodate a pram. From the minute we arrived to the minute we left, the service was supremely professional but also warm and friendly. (I'm sure, though, they and the other diners were secretly relieved that our son is a very quiet and placid baby. We wouldn't have taken him if this wasn't the case, though I don't think we would have taken him at all if it had been dinner.)
There were two options for lunch - a la carte, or a five-course 'Taste of Spring' degustation menu. We chose the latter, which costs $80 per person. You can also pay a little extra and have wines matched to each course for $125 per person, but we were both driving and decided not to do this. I did, however, try an excellent De Bortoli Rosé.
First course was a little hill of herb-cured Yarra Valley salmon with citrus and fennel slaw dressed with a saffron and shallot dressing, with a blob of olive tapenade to the side. This dish, like all those following, was bursting with flavour but simultaneously managed to be fresh, with individual flavours very distinguishable. The olive tapenade was not too salty so didn't overpower the delicacy of the salmon and slaw.
Second course: pan-fried herb gnocchi with spring vegetables. The green smear at the front of the plate is my fault - I started eating before taking the photo
Second course was vegetarian: pan-fired herb gnocchi with new season's spring vegetables, radicchio and pecorino. The spring vegetables included white asparagus and baby peas, a lovely light accompaniment to the gnocchi.
Third was the bird: a delicious, succulent grilled quail with istra chorizo, broad beans and local goat's curd. The meat was very tender and sweet - lovely.
The fourth course was probably the most impressive, though I hesitate to compare them, but I will explain why. You have a choice of either braised boneless beef rib with a roast garlic puree, grilled local organic baby leeks and salsa verde OR Victorian free-range pork belly and grilled scotch with parsnip puree, lentils de puy, black pudding, caramelised apple and cider jus.
We each had a different one, as recommended by the waiter, on the condition that we'd share them. I can assure you we were watching each other with beady eyes to make sure neither of us ate more than half of the dish in front of them. My husband received the beef rib first, and I knew we were in for something special when he said 'Watch this!', and cut the meat. The knife, an ordinary dinner knife, sliced through the beef like it was butter, yet the meat was not rare; it was cooked through. The look on his face as he ate it suggested his taste buds had found something approaching nirvana.
We later found out that the meat, normally a fairly tough cut, is sealed in a Cryovac package and cooked for 48 hours at around 75 degrees in its juices. The result is incredibly tender and tasty, yet doesn't fall apart like many slow-cooked meat dishes; it maintains a firm shape like a steak.
I had the pork belly, even though I have not in the past been a fan of this dish. I usually find it too fatty and not very tasty. However, this one changed my mind about how fabulous this cut of meat can be. It was cooked to perfection and the crowning glory was the caramelised tile of 'crackling' on top, like a piece of pork toffee. It made it a little difficult to cut the piece in two (saving a piece for hubby) and I was tempted to put the whole little slab into my mouth and deal with the consequences, but I resisted for the sake of the marriage. It was divine - as close as I have ever experienced a piece of meat tasting like a savoury dessert.
The pork scotch fillet and disc of black pudding were also wonderful, but they were eclipsed by the pork belly.
The quantities of each dish were perfect too, and while we weren't overly full by this stage, we were certainly satisfied. And dessert was still to come...
But first, we were served a palate cleanser - a shot glass of lime sabayon topped with what appeared to be an apple and cinnamon granita. It was very refreshing after the richness of the fourth course.
Dessert - almost too beautiful to eat, but well worth doing so
Then, dessert, described on the menu as 'New seasons harvest farm rhubarb, rosé sabayon, pistachio granola and turkish delight', served in a lovely little round glass. The description doesn't do it justice - topped with delicate cylinders of meringue, the flavours were layered so that you collected all the flavours when you put your spoon in. The colours were also wonderful, a testament to the care taken by the team here to engage all your senses.
I'm sorry I didn't take more photos of the food, but frankly I was there to celebrate my anniversary with my husband and enjoy the food and the experience, and that's what I did. For the price, this meal was extremely good value for money and the service was excellent. I thoroughly recommend it.