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Published November 13th 2014
Decadence now has a view
Dessert with a view. Chocalate marquet with beetroot chocolate ice cream. Source Facebook Grande Hotel
There are some huge, and expensive places to stay in Hepburn Springs, where you can pay upwards of $300 a night, enjoy a passable restaurant meal and then mosey on back to your room to watch TV just like you might do at home.
But in the midst of your stay open your window and have a little listen. You might just be able to hear the distant hum of excitement.
Continental breakfast on the balcony. Source Facebook The Grande
The locals (as well as a growing number of tourists in the know) are living it up at the Grande Hotel one street back off the main drag. While there may be more grandiose hotels in Hepburn Springs it is the Grande that provides the grandest of all experiences
The Grande is an old 1920s hotel, low slung and demure at the front but broadening and heightening at the back to reach a couple of storeys.
The outlook is stunning as the old girl backs onto the Wombat Forest. New owners, Ian and Jodie Hawkins, have taken full advantage of the breath-taking views by building extensive decking overlooking the forest gully.
Sitting on the deck it feels as if one were suspended above the forest canopy on an air walk. Whilst inside the large windows and French doors enshrine a view of an outside Arden.
Looking down at the outside seating. Photo Harriet Dashnow.
Marlene Dietrich is the MC dressed in top hat and tails. She's both charming and alarming and no one dares get up from their seat to interrupt the show while she's in charge.
She introduces The Bliss Bombs a tantalizing burlesque troupe. Their first act transports you back to the 1890s with Lola Montez, the naughty dancer, who performed the famous spider dance raising her skirts in proportion to the number of gold nuggets miners threw at her feet.
Then they propel you forward to the 1940s and 50s with domestic burlesque routines, ironing in their suspenders, vacuuming in their skimpy petticoats -- a great chance to show off their vintage underwear finds.
A number of the women are comic geniuses with their clever rearrangement of lyrics from well-known songs and their raunchy empowering dance routines. There wasn't a woman or man in the audience who wasn't totally blown away by their performance.
This was the night we experienced but these fabulous Friday night entertainments are a fixture on the Grande's calendar. Forthcoming events include The Marlene Dietrich Show and Geoffrey Williams singing Nina Simone and Bill Withers. Keep an eye on their website to see what's coming up. Tickets are a modest $10 -$15 dollars and the bar serves glorious watermelon slushies laced with alcohol. Food can include dinner in the dining room beforehand or gourmet tapas at the cabaret.
Originally the focus was on setting up a café (and yes this gorgeous garden café with its bush views is coming) but when Ian engaged local culinary legend Andrew Dennis there was the chance to also offer gourmet dining.
To give you an indication of Andrew Dennis's reputation the Age Good Food Guide reviewers were there incognito within a couple of days of opening to see what this feted and twice hatted-chef was up to. They wrote up a glowing review. Click here.
Local aged beef steak, Kipfler potatoes, salsa verde, watercress, jus - Photo by Harriet Dashnow
Andrew Dennis, works within a tradition associated with food writers such as Greg Malouf and Kurt Sampson (with whom Dennis worked) that emphasizes a modern spin on Middle Eastern cooking. This incorporates elements of the cuisine rather than entire dishes. So you might, for example, as you do at the Grande have an entrée of baharat spiced crispy quail with cauliflower tabbouleh and tahini yoghurt, a main of cinnamon and sugar cured grilled duck breast, harissa baked pears with a crunchy Lebanese cabbage salad and pomegranate molasses and for dessert a chocolate and Turkish delight brownie with rosewater strawberries, vanilla bean ice-cream crowned with a cloud of Persian style fairy floss. For the full menu click here.
The word brownie sells this dessert short. Photo Harriet Dashnow.
I succumbed to this tempting dessert and the word "brownie" did not do it justice as the interlacing of Turkish delight makes for a delectable chewy mass the texture of which will be forever remembered.
Andrew Dennis builds his menu around fresh, regional, sustainable produce often bringing in ingredients from his own garden. He makes everything from scratch including the complimentary soda bread (served with a dipping bowl of Mount Zero olive oil). The bread has a lightly salt dusted crust and is incredibly moreish. The sighs from fellow dinner guests were almost audible.
Even my entrée of chorizo sausages (smoky but with a bite) were homemade. They were served on a liquid tomato base; with chickpeas set off by the cool taste of freshly picked flat leaf parsley.
A side of organic broccoli, chilli, garlic, lemon and toasted almonds. Photo Harriet Dashnow
All dishes were crafted rather than stacked. My main of chermoula marinated tuki lamb cutlet, confit shoulder Tuscan kale and braised leak was served over a decorative sweep of borage tzatki and scattered with tiny flower buds. My mind kept repeating "a thing of beauty is a joy forever" until my appetite begged for sustenance.
While there were some international wines on the wine list Ian helped us choose local wines to go with our meal. They included a sparkling from Ellender Estate a boutique winery at Glenlyon, and the Walsh block Syrah and Pinot Noir from Eastern Peak near Ballarat.
Oregano and black pepper fried cuttlefish, taramasalata, French Breakfest radishes. Photo Harriet Dashnow
Mains ranged from $28 to $38 and desserts were $15. Should you be so lucky to be in town on non-public holiday Monday nights the Grande has a local's night, that you are welcome to join. Two courses for $38 and three courses for $47 including a glass of wine.
The windows and French doors of the dining room open out onto a wide balcony where you can also sit and dine on hot nights overlooking the forest.
Photo Harriet Dashnow - baby grand in the Grande's dining room
The hotel's original 34 bedrooms have been configured into 11 spacious rooms. Many feature brand new ensuites. Some include large round spas, capacious enough to fit a small family. Another room has a separate terrazzo bath. The best rooms seem to be those leading out onto the balcony with its scenic views. For room rates click here.
Source: Grande Hotel website
With the forest as a backdrop and being a block away from the main road the Grande is idyllically quiet.
Our room had a large flat screen TV -- not that we turned it on for the entire weekend.
There were so many other things to do: chilling in the lounge and enjoying Daylesford She-Tea organic teas and freshly ground coffee; curling up with a book and a glass of wine in front of the open fireplaces or simply sitting on the balcony for sunset cocktails or a long leisurely breakfast and listening to the chorus of birdsong.
A sample of the grand drinks. Source: Grande Hotel Facebook.
Breakfasts are another culinary accomplishment as you can see from the photos below. The house made granola was served with poached rhubarb and rosewater yoghurt. My herbed scrambled eggs came with spears of grilled asparagus, parmesan and capers.
Homemade reakfast granola photo by Harriet Dashnow
During school holidays the Grande also put on films and popcorn for children downstairs so parents can enjoy a leisurely lunch on the balcony upstairs.
Owner Ian Hawkins was a delight to talk to. He has lead an interesting well-travelled life and is passionate about wine, the arts and the local community where he and his wife have chosen to bring up their six year old twins.
Perfect set up to just relax. Photo Harriet Dashnow
There is a short ten-minute walk behind the hotel that crosses a bridge over the gorge and meanders down to the historic Hepburn Bath House. We joked that you could probably shuffle back in your bathrobe and slippers and no one would care a hoot.
Hepburn Spring's Grande, is Budapest Grande rather than traditionally grand if you get my drift. It's where you go to tap into local eccentricities and meet eccentric locals and revel in the best of local cuisine. The Grande's staff is less regimented about breakfast curfews and check out times so you don't have the same harried feeling that you might experience elsewhere.
To anchor our experience with the obvious cliché "it was simply grand staying at the Grande."