It seems superfluous to tell you, but I recently had dinner at Provenance in Beechworth and it was very, very good.
You see, that was three weeks ago, and last week The Age Good Food Guide Awards crowned the restaurant as ‘Regional Restaurant of The Year’ and it’s chef and owner Michael Ryan as ‘Chef of the Year’.
I’d love to say I agree with the judge’s decisions, but the truth is I’m unqualified to opine as I don’t get to eat in Victoria as much as I’d like. What I can tell you is that there is so much enjoyment to be had in visiting Provenance. And much of that stems from the clarity of Michael Ryan’s vision and dedication to producing food that is expressive and detailed. It is that rare thing, an assured and harmonious restaurant experience.
I grew up in north east Victoria about 50 kms up the road from Beechworth and the region still owns my heart. I had returned, free of obligation, to unravel and reorder my own feelings about friends, family and loss. But it was a secret mission, and all my comrades knew of our assignment was that there would be eating, drinking and talking. It turned out this was all that was needed, along with a slower pace and no need to be anywhere other than in the moment. Dinner at Provenance folded into this mission seamlessly.
As I booked my flights, I emailed my cousin to tell her of my plans to visit Provenance. She was excited. Even though she goes to Beechworth often and had heard good things, she hadn’t found occasion to visit. I do the same thing with Brisbane restaurants, I ‘save’ them up for a celebration that doesn’t come, and more than a few times, the thing that makes them special goes away before I visit. I was pleased I could provide the ‘occasion’ to visit. She talked to her Dad and a few more emails and we’d sorted out the who, when and where – ‘a merry party’ as she said.
The talking part of the mission got underway swiftly, and as we talked about the food for lunch and then for dinner, we talked too about wine. The wine in the cellar, the wine being made in the area, wine made in far away places and we pored over maps and books and photos and in a relatively new innovation, resolved arguments about wine and food and places by googling them. We talked about the reasons to cellar wine and our own discoveries about what wines we liked and why our tastes changed. We opened some things from the cellar and talked about how they got there and theorised about why they tasted as they did. We talked less about what had happened between when they had been laid down and now. But each moment as we talked and laughed and tasted was enough that it didn’t matter.
Outside, a heavy fog was back the next morning, obscuring my view of snow capped mountains on the other side of the broad valley. Closer to home, there was bacon coming out of brine and into the smokehouse, and some cured lamb coming out of the smokehouse and into the fry pan. I called Provenance to reconfirm our reservation and Michael answered the phone. After talking to him on Twitter over the past couple of years, he was now real and we were going to his restaurant.
There’s a bit to do in Beechworth, so we gave ourselves a head start. We’d been out to buy cheese from Jones The Grocer in Albury that morning, and we added to our collection as we stopped into various shops in Beechworth. We visited The Provender and tasted Pennyweight Fino – so much freshness! I marvelled that all these celebrated Beechworth wines, so hard to get in Brisbane were all there in the room behind the deli. I purchased what I could reasonably carry, then we walked around the corner to the Cellar Door Wine Store and I found I could carry more. My eye was drawn to Gary Mill’s Jamsheed wines and grabbed some of his Roussanne, made from fruit sourced at Smiths Vineyard just outside town.
Next stop was Bridge Road Brewers. My uncle is an enthusiastic fan of this place, and it seems this enthusiasm is infectious. It was a wet and miserable day so we warmed ourselves by the fire. If for some reason you wanted to skip the excellent brewed in situ beers, then you could opt for the A. Rodda Tempranillo. There’s some tasty pizzas and snacks on offer and a laid back courtyard area outside for sunnier days.
From Bridge Road Brewers courtyard you can walk through to Tanswell’s Commercial Hotel, one of a clutch of historic pubs in Beechworth. So we did. Up the back steps and through into the back bar. It’s a big space with plenty of character and warmth from the timber, carpets and brass furnishings and the friendly staff. We sat in the bar talking and taking in the long wine list, on one long, lean strip of card like something from Jack Kerouac’s typewriter. So many local wines, so little time. By chance we met the owner, and my uncle charmed her into giving the three of us a tour of the pub’s many chambered cellar. It’s the place where a local ghost tour kicks off, and as we poked around we got a short lesson on Beechworth history that was long on laughs.
Well, it was time. Our collective expectations peaked and we took a deep breath and walked around the corner to Provenance. Safely ensconced by the fire in another gracious historical building, our waiter guided us through our options. There’d been considerable discussion about the menu and wine list and whether we should go for a la carte or degustation and a pact sworn that none of us must order the same dish. We made an exception for the starter of an anchovy and its fried bones and a recommended match of fino sherry. “Wow! Are you having the anchovy before the sherry, or the sherry and then the anchovy?” my uncle asked. I paused, and thought harder as I savoured the next few mouthfuls. An amazing match, and so many facets of enjoyment to be had. I loved the crunch of the bones. I could have been happy with just the bones, but with the anchovy and the fino it made for one of the most exciting food and wine matches I’ve had in a long time. Michael sent out some house made kimchi that our waiter smilingly told us he was very proud of. Justifiably so. And the prawn chips. Amazing. My cousin and I laughed later that after so many family outings as kids to Chinese restaurants it had been hard to come at ordering them. Michael’s version tastes of prawns, sweetness, more crunchy, crispy, flavoursome goodness. None of those flaccid pink food colouring jobs we used to stick to our tongues as kids.
In spite of studying the menu in advance, there was some healthy indecision when we were choosing our entrees and mains. I settled on the chestnut pasta with Mt Buffalo hazelnuts, sage, burnt butter, dried orange and pecorino. This dish starred some local ingredients I’m rather fond of. The hazelnuts were something else, so much flavour and so fresh. Combined with the bite of the chestnut pasta, the sage, orange and pecorino this was like a quintet of dazzlingly talented virtuoso players. The local Myrtleford butter bound it up and extended each flavour. Delicious and impressive as was the accompanying Mayford Chardonnay 2009.
My main was the generously sized grass fed Yalandra wagyu flat iron, chestnut puree, Brussels sprout leaves, fried Brussels sprouts, pickled Jerusalem artichokes, pine mushroom salt. My cousin knows the people behind Yalandra, a local producer and their rib on the bone is an object of worship I’m told. Not one to order steak in a restaurant, I’m glad I did and in terms of flavour this was outstanding. The accompaniments of two textures of brussels sprouts, creamy chestnut puree and mushroom salt add satisfying textural interest and flavours complimentary to the beef. A glass of Jamsheed Garden Gully Syrah 2010 was a fine match. I’ve since started ordering steak again, in some likely vain pursuit of recapturing the enjoyment of this dish.
Naturally, we’d planned carefully to ensure we’d all be able to enjoy dessert. There’s some properly interesting combinations, like the Earl Grey cream, prune puree, milk crisp and puffed grain granola. The detail, technique and mastery of flavours and textures that we’d enjoyed up to this point continued through to the finish.
Food, wine and service are all accomplished at Provenance, with the food showing considerable technique, a fondness for Japanese ingredients and sensibilities and a keen eye on the best ingredients the region offers. Wine too spotlights the regions strengths, including names you know like Giaconda and Sorrenberg and the opportunity to pioneer wines from other producers you’re less familiar with. Producers from around Australia and beyond round out the list which is curated by Jeanette Henderson, who has qualifications in wine making and ensures the wine keeps pace with the imaginative and assured food. It’s worth noting that local wines are keenly priced, making for an excellent opportunity to explore wines that may sit out of reach on city restaurant lists.
As we talked and listened and ate I began to sketch out my next visit. I thought about a few good friends who really needed to come to this place and about how to rearrange things at home so I could visit the region more often.
Provenance is a truly special experience in a region with much to enjoy. Michael Ryan seems a fitting ambassador for not only the produce of the region and for cooking as an individual expression of artistry but also for the pure enjoyment of dining out.
After his Good Food Guide win, The Age proclaimed on its front page ‘A Non-Celebrity Chef Strikes Gold Twice In The North-East’. I tend to think that a chef who has both the challenge and luxury of cooking away from celebrity and capital city competitiveness has a better opportunity to produce such thoughtful, deliberate and deeply beautiful food.
There’s little point trying to disguise my bias – it’s a great region to visit if you love food and wine and Provenance makes it all the more compelling.
86 Ford Street, Beechworth
Phone 03 5728 1786
Even if you’re unlikely to visit Provenance soon, I highly recommend following Michael Ryan on Twitter @TheProvenance for a small glimpse into his food and thoughts. He’s also very funny.
Provenance also includes a bed and breakfast that looks rather luxe. Restaurant and accommodation packages are available.