Dan Stock, Herald Sun
April 30, 2016 12:00am
OH, if those walls could talk. They’d tell tales tall and true; of Sir Donald Bradman and Mark Twain, Robert Menzies and the Duke of York, later King George V. Of Dame Nellie Melba warming her chords, and the royal commission into the Stockade’s swords.
They saw squatters forming clubs (the Melbourne Racing Club, in 1875) and Lord Kitchener nursing a beer.
Like so much of pristinely preserved Lydiard St, Craig’s has a storeyed past from a time when Ballarat’s golden fortune meant the famous flocked. But it’s one thing to have a past steeped in history and quite another to shake off the mothballs and embrace a new century.
Enter chef Ian Curley, who’s been brought in to transform the food from fair into fab and by doing so start staking Ballarat’s claim as a worthy food destination. As he says, when it comes to food Ballarat tends to play ugly sister to Daylesford’s ball-going beauty, yet they sup from the same cup brimming with brilliant local produce.
Curley, the executive chef of The European group, which also includes Kirk’s Wine Bar and the newly opened French Saloon in Melbourne’s CBD, has been acting as consultant chef for the past year, overseeing the menu and mentoring Shannon Easton, who’s in charge of executing the vision.
And from what we tried over a leisurely Sunday lunch, where we were joined by all generations — a family reunion in the corner, a high chair or two, gorgeous grey-haired duos taking tea — the slipper now looks like it fits.
They entered, and duly won, Ballarat’s best pie competition last year, and the duck pie recently made a return to the lunch menu. And this pie, if nothing else, is worth a visit to Craig’s on its own.
It’s an orb of golden beauty, its buttery, flaky pastry encasing a filling that’s decadently rich in all the right places. A forest of mushrooms — enoki and button, wood and brown — bolsters shredded duck with a hit of garlicky orange zing. The meat, from Great Ocean Ducks, is excellent, and a discernible hero in the filling. Prunes add sweetness, watercress sauce a fresh hit of chlorophyll. It is a deserving award winner ($32).
Make sure you leave room, for it’s easy to lose resolve when the plate of crunchy-crusted fluffy white bread hits the table upon seating, served as it is with house aioli with a real garlic punch in lieu of butter or oil. It’s naughtily good.
Entrees, too, are generous to a fault. A $16 serve of salmon blini is in fact three fluffy, parsley-flecked, pan-tanned pikelets topped with slices of lightly cured salmon and a slow-fried, runny yolked egg. A slightly overdressed cress salad finishes what would, for many, be a perfectly satisfying light lunch.
So would the autumnal plate of late-season figs teamed with thick slices of pan-fried haloumi, the salt and sweet amped by a drizzle of honey, a scattering of currants and lots of pine nuts for oily crunch ($17).
The shallot/mustard/marrow crust that has become a signature of sorts for steaks served at Kirks (and now French Saloon) also makes a welcome appearance on the eye fillet here, as does the same celeriac remoulade ($44), while pork cotoletta with slaw ($35), or crumbed fish with a bright zucchini mint salad ($30) show that simple doesn’t have to mean dull.
A fillet of Petuna ocean trout is expertly cooked, its crisp crown covering creamy, sunset-hued flesh, the inherent richness of which is tempered by the vinegar-licked escabeche of mussels and clams it’s served with. Fennel, carrot and tomato add stewed interest, a smoked eel take on brandade adds potato heft ($36, pictured).