Review: The Dispensary, Bendigo

I can’t even really remember how long it’s been since I had an alcoholic drink. Two years? Three years? It’s definitely been a significant length of time since I had a drink, and I honestly haven’t really missed it. Most restaurants will do a half-decent mocktail, otherwise I’m generally quite content with a sparkling water or organic soft drink of some description.

I decided on my 30th birthday that I would break my drought with a single drink. In fact, I would start drinking again in polite company keeping only one rule in mind – I will only ever have exquisitely crafted cocktails or extremely expensive wine, and I would truly savour the moment by making one or two drinks last a whole day. 

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I chose the perfect place to rejoin drinking society, with a leisurely lunch at The Dispensary Bar & Diner in Bendigo. The Dispensary’s reputation is spreading far and wide, enough so that I had colleagues in Melbourne advising that I visit the Dispensary when they heard I was visiting Bendigo for the weekend.

Part of their appeal lies in their extremely impressible drinks list – dozens of wines join hundreds of beers, join more than a handful of spirits and pages of cocktails. There’s honestly a drink to suit everyone at the Dispensary, from sweet to smoky and creamy to crisp.

Aperol Spritz, $14, Garage Project Hapi Daze, $11
Aperol Spritz, $14, Garage Project Hapi Daze, $11

So what drink did I break my abstinence with? None other than an Aperol Spritz, light, sparkly, fruity, and oh so very drinkable on a warm day in the country. It’s the perfect drink of Aperol and Prosecco to enjoy on a summer’s day, the type of drink that works well with any type of food. Altogether a perfect choice for re-entering the world of alcohol, although it was strong enough to make me feel woozy within minutes of having my first sip, albeit it was on an empty stomach.

K took the bartender’s suggestion of the Garage Project Hapi Daze beer in a tinny, a pale ale that had an intense lingering taste of hops. A proper beery beer. I loved the design on the tin with its retro surf vibe.

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As you can tell, I really enjoyed my Aperol Spritz…

Pacific Oyster, $4 each
Pacific Oyster, $4 each

…but I particularly enjoyed these Pacific Oysters, which surprised me with their freshness and lingering flavours of the sea. Is it unusual that I had some of the freshest oysters I’ve ever eaten in a tiny regional non-coastal town? Or is it simply a reflection of the pride The Dispensary take in buying the best ingredients? My only gripe is that the adductor hadn’t been cut, which meant that my attempt to slurp down the oyster in one gulp was hindered and a lot messier than it would have been otherwise.

Super crunch fries with malt mayo, $8
Super crunch fries with malt mayo, $8

These Super Crunch Fries lived up to their name as well, with an audible crunch every time I bit into a fry. I’m going to horrify a lot of people though, as I say that I would have preferred for these fries to be served with a homemade tomato chutney rather than malt mayo, however delicious the mayo was. I think it’s one of those personal preferences that divides the nation – mayonnaise or tomato sauce on your chips?

Edamame with pink river salt, $6
Edamame with pink river salt, $6

No such controversy with the small serve of Edamame with Pink River Salt. Edamame beans are always a crowd-pleaser, especially when cooked as perfectly and flavoured as subtly as these were. 

Broccoli with lemon butter and smoked almonds, $12
Broccoli with lemon butter and smoked almonds, $12

In the interest of ordering more greens and being marginally healthy, we also ordered a side of the Broccoli with Lemon Butter and Smoked Almonds. Health be damned though, when the greens turn out to be smothered in the creamiest and richest buttery sauce you’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. The crushed almonds sprinkled on top helped to add a bit of texture to the dish as well.

Fried chicken steam buns with lettuce, cucumber and mayo, $13
Fried chicken steam buns with lettuce, cucumber and mayo, $13

Initially I shied away from the idea of ordering the steam buns as I didn’t want to be disappointed. I’ve been burned you see, by sub-par steamed buns such as the pork belly bun we had at Mathallen Food Hall in Oslo. The bartender talked me into the Fried Chicken Steam Buns though, and I’m so glad he did. The Southern-style chicken tenders were a surprisingly good much for the pillowy-soft steam buns and fresh crispy lettuce and cucumber. A surprisingly excellent combination.

Prawn toasts with chilli and kewpie mayo, $12
Prawn toasts with chilli and kewpie mayo, $12

The Prawn Toasts with Chilli and Kewpie Mayo were another delight. A wafer-thin sesame-encrusted deep-fried crispy layer hid a piping hot centre of juicy prawn. With an extra chilli kick, these little individual prawn toast bites really hit the spot.

Jasmine ice-cream coconut, milk crumb, lime and strawberry, $15
Jasmine ice-cream coconut, milk crumb, lime and strawberry, $15

While we were quite full by that point, we couldn’t resist ordering a dessert to share. I’m glad we did, because this turned out to be quite the highlight of the meal – Jasmine ice-cream with coconut, milk crumb, lime and strawberry. I think this dish in particularly highlighted the culinary genius of the chef at The Dispensary. Pairing the slightly bitter yet flowery undertones of jasmine with the snap of freeze-dried coconut and strawberry, and creaminess of milk crumb was a real work of art. One of the best desserts I’ve tasted in recent times.

Chocolate fudge, $8
Chocolate fudge, $8

Did I say one dessert to share? My mistake…naturally, we ended up ordering two desserts! The little Chocolate Fudge bites were the perfect way to end our meal, with the aftertaste of rich dark and creamy chocolate lingering on the tongue.

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The Dispensary was a wonderful place to celebrate a birthday with a long and leisurely lunch. With world-class cocktails and a highly impressive drinks list, one could easily make the mistake of assuming The Dispensary is just another bar. However when you take into account the excellence of the food menu, and the innovation behind some of the dishes, it’s clear that food is just as important as wine to the proprietors of The Dispensary.

It’s definitely a must-visit for any visitor to Bendigo. Even if you don’t count yourself as a wine buff, a beer connoisseur, or a foodie, you won’t be able to help but walk away from a meal at The Dispensary feeling well satisfied with your visit.

The Dispensary Bar & Diner is located at 9 Chancery Lane, Bendigo.

Review: Bucatini Restaurant and Bar, Mitcham

The first months of a new job are always such a learning curve. While I had some advantage over others in that I had previous exposure to the sector in which I now work, there have been some dramatic developments in the past few years that necessitate quite intensive study.

One component of this was attending an all-day seminar in Doncaster, about a month after I started my job. In this seminar, an expert from Canada presented strategies and real-life case studies demonstrating best practice in the sector. How’s that for cryptic – I still haven’t revealed the sector I’m now working in! (FWIW it’s in social services.)

I took advantage of the north-east location and met up with my friend Jake for an early dinner after the seminar in his local area of Mitcham. It’s not often I find myself in that part of town, and I decided that I might as well take advantage of my Entertainment Book voucher for a 2-for-1 main course offer at Bucatini Restaurant on Whitehorse Road.

The restaurant was particularly quiet on the Monday night we were there, but with tables enough for 100 people (and a private dining room as well), I expect that they do most of their trade catering to larger family groups later in the week. It did mean that we got quick and friendly service though, given there were only a handful of tables to wait on.

Pollo (crispy skin-on chicken breast, grilled and served with Kipfler potato, mushroom ragu, spinach and finished with a prosciutto and thyme cream sauce), $29.90
Pollo (crispy skin-on chicken breast, grilled and served with Kipfler potato, mushroom ragu, spinach and finished with a prosciutto and thyme cream sauce), $29.90

The menu is a rather generic ‘modern Australian’ menu, meaning that dishes have influences from a variety of European countries with a primarily Italian influence. Jake’s choice of the Pollo, a grilled chicken dish that’s not dissimilar to a recipe that I’d seen in Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food recipe book, was a good example of this Italian inspiration.

The prosciutto and thyme sauce seems to be a particularly Italian addition to what would otherwise have been a fairly simple grilled chicken breast served with potatoes, mushroom and spinach. The sauce was quite superb – extremely rich and more than a little decadent.

Fish of the Day (Grilled fillet served on rosemary and garlic potatoes, braised fennel and leek with avocado and citrus salsa), $33.90
Fish of the Day (Grilled fillet served on rosemary and garlic potatoes, braised fennel and leek with avocado and citrus salsa), $33.90

My Fish of the Day was a beautiful salmon fillet – while cooked quite a bit more than I would normally prefer, this did result in a super-crispy caramelised skin that went particularly well with the zesty citrus salsa. While I wasn’t a big fan of the fennel or leek (that’s personal preference, I don’t love aniseed-esque flavours), I did love the crispy roasted rosemary and garlic potatoes. I’d be quite happy to have them with all my meals!

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Vanilla Creme Brulee, $12.90

We deliberated for barely a minute over whether or not to order dessert. After all, the answer is surely always yes? Jake ordered the Vanilla Creme Brulee which came with a scoop of vanilla bean ice-cream on the side. The caramelised top of the brulee gives a particularly satisfying crack as you break through to vanilla custard inside, but to be honest, it paled in comparison to the rich flavours of my choice of dessert.

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Sticky Date Pudding topped with butterscotch sauce and served with vanilla ice-cream, $12.90

The Sticky Date Pudding is where it’s at when it comes to dessert. Soft, warm, buttery sticky date sponge pudding drenched in a stickily sweet butterscotch sauce was a particularly decadent choice. It was particularly rich though, and needed the refreshing vanilla ice-cream to help cleanse the palate.

I imagine Bucatini Restaurant is much like any other suburban restaurant offering modern Australian cuisine to large family groups. The food is tasty though nothing particular or out of the way, the staff are friendly and familiar. However, it lacks any particular distinctive element that makes one want to rush back for a second meal unless you happen to be part of a large family living in that area with it as your local restaurant.

Bucatini Restaurant and Bar is located at 454 Whitehorse Road in Mitcham.

Roadtrip: Sydney to Melbourne via Princes Highway

I’ve done the road trip between Sydney and Melbourne many times before. Twelve hours cooped up in a small car hurtling down the Hume Highway only taking breaks to fuel up and grab some more junk food isn’t exactly what I would call a relaxing road trip though!

That’s why K and I decided to take it slower on our recent move to Melbourne from Sydney with the first carload of our possessions (everything else is boxed up and stored at his parents house!). We decided to drive down the coastal Princes Highway from Wollongong to Eden before turning inland to Melbourne over a leisurely two days, splitting the fourteen hour drive over two days.

We left Sydney on a drizzling Friday morning and spent some time caught up in peak hour traffic before reaching blue skies and a clear road to Wollongong. Choosing not to stop in Wollongong, we drove half an hour further and stopped into Kiama to check out the Kiama Blowhole (my first time!) and for a quick morning tea treat at Flour Water Salt Sourdough Bakery. I had never heard of the bakery before, but I think it may actually be part of a chain as I saw another outlet further down the coast in a sleepy little town. Either way, it’s one of the few places in town that are unashamedly modern and hipster with modern minimalist décor with a touch of rustic living.

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K ordered a Brioche Roll with Ham, Swiss Cheese and Dijon Mayonnaise, lightly toasted. The brioche roll was deliciously sweet and the cheese melted just right, creating an interesting blend of sweet and savoury. As he devoured the roll, I found myself eyeing the deli section of the bakery, offering everything from homemade gluten-free pasta to picnic packs for day-trippers.

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I had more of a yearning for something sweet for morning tea, so I ordered the sweet Pear Frangipane Tart. It wasn’t quite as sweet as I was actually expecting, which probably worked out a bit better! I particularly liked the crust on this tart, which was nicely baked with a vague caramelised or burnt butter flavour.

Note – while I don’t think this tart was either gluten-free or vegan, Flour Water Salt had a number of different options across both its savoury and sweet menus for those with dietary requirements. Whatever your dietary need, it can be accommodated!

We jumped back on the road and found ourselves in Batemans Bay a few hours later for lunch. Wandering around somewhat aimlessly struggling to decide on where and what to eat (neither the local Chinese takeaway nor the Hogs Breath Café was particularly appealing!), we finally stopped in at The Starfish Deli, right on the water’s edge. We walked in towards the end of their lunch hour rush so service was a little patchy, though friendly.

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Still quite full from our morning tea, we decided to share a main and an entrée. The main actually came out first – their daily special of the Grilled Swordfish with chips and salad. It’s a pity that we couldn’t order some seafood that was a bit more local, but the waitress had informed us that they weren’t serving oysters that day as the river was currently too dirty to harvest oysters. Nevertheless, the swordfish was still cooked well with firm smooth flesh, especially with its accompanying herbed butter.

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The entrée came out a little while later, Dips served with woodfired pizza crust. I thought the pizza crust was done perfectly as it was crispy on the outside while still being a tad doughy on the inside – but K would have preferred it baked for a little while longer so that it was perfectly crispy throughout. The pumpkin dip was definitely my pick, as the hummus lacked any punch of flavour.

Starfish Deli Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Absolutely stuffed to the brim, we returned to our car and kept driving down the coast until we reached our accommodation for the night – an evening at the caravan park in Merimbula. For a cheap family-friendly holiday resort, the individual cabins were surprisingly well furnished and decked out. The next time I visit Merimbula, I would probably look at staying an extra night or two in a nicer Airbnb apartment or resort as the area was quite pretty.

We also didn’t get much of a chance to try any of the cafes or restaurants in Merimbula as we chose to go to the supermarket to buy supplies for dinner and breakfast instead of going out to eat. We were just too full from lunch still! Some microwave soup and salad from Woolworths saw us through the night.

Early the next morning, we hit the road again, with a slight break to check out the beautiful scenery near Eden. Later that morning, we stopped at Cann River, a tiny town with a single main strip of shops and cafes that rely on the tourist trade for survival. K was desperate for a coffee, but with each café advertising themselves as having the “best coffee” or “great coffee” or “superb coffee”, it was difficult for him to make a choice!

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He ended up getting his coffee from the Cann River Bakery as I declared that I wanted a bit of a morning tea break. While the coffee was only middling, the Apple and Cinnamon Teacake was absolutely stunning. A buttery, moist little cake lightly spiced with cinnamon and chunks of fresh apple, it was a real delight. I’d drop in again just to try some of the other flavours of teacakes!

Cann River Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Our final stop on our road trip was Orbost, a tiny little town in East Gippsland. With four middling cafes in town to service the small population, we chose what looked like the best option – the Wishing Tree Café. It was located opposite an empty lot on the main street, in which was located one of the most stunning blossom trees I’ve seen (see my Instagram photo).

K ordered a simple toasted sandwich – Chicken and Avocado Focaccia. You can’t go too wrong with this combination, especially when it’s made using a herbed focaccia roll.

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I stupidly chose one of the warm lunch options that had been on display in the bainmarie for who knows how long…the Spinach and Mushroom Quiche with a side salad. The bottom of the pastry had gone a little bit soggy, and there simply wasn’t enough flavour in the eggy quiche. I couldn’t even add a little bit of cracked black pepper or sea salt to the quiche as there was only table salt or white pepper. At least the grated beetroot helped save it from being completely flavourless.

And there you have it – two days of café stops along the Princes Highway from Sydney to Melbourne! There’s obviously a heap of much more famous foodie places that we didn’t stop at along the way (Berry Doughnut Van, Rick Stein’s at Bannisters), but I was more interested in seeing what impromptu unplanned walk-in dining experiences would be like. On the whole, I’m largely impressed with the quality of food available for the casual road-tripper, which just goes to how advanced Australian cafes and chefs are compared to many other parts of the world.