When picturing my weekend away in the Yarra Valley, I had visions of a stone cottage, open fire and (many) open bottles of red. Somehow, all accommodation fitting these criteria fell away and I found myself pulling into Balgownie Estate Vineyard Resort and Spa. While definitely a resort, Balgownie Estate has enough going for it to justify considering it for more than just awkward work conferences -if for the unconventional suites that feature spas overlooking the lounge room alone.
Rae’s restaurant, attached to the cellar door, is an endearing combination of resort dining and strong restaurant tradition, whose whole more than exceeds its parts. Vaulted ceilings and lots of glass with walls of tall spiky plants, thick white tablecloths on unsettlingly high tables (the table top came up to my chest), an ambitious menu combined with old-fashioned serving sizes – but some unforgettable flavours, outstanding wine, and the most genuinely friendly and knowledgeable wait staff I’ve experienced in years more than made up for the incongruities. The beauty of Rae’s menu is its simple structure. There are two options: two or three courses, each for a specific price, and a variety of sides to round out a meal. The wine list is short and to the point – containing only Balgownie labels – which again takes the confusion out of the selection process. The wines are undeniably good.
The views are some of the Yarra Valley’s best but as it was a cold, dark night, I was glad to be next to the fire, despite it being one of those glass-and-metal gas creations. I had been intrigued by the house-smoked salmon, and my decision was warranted. Between bites, I sipped a glass of the Premium Cuvee, and the salmon’s flavour shone against the cuvee-infused cream and salty caper berries. It was one of those dining moments where you savour the flavours in your mouth for as long as possible to avoid breaking the spell.
The slow-cooked lamb that followed was the stuff of dreams. Classically paired with a sweet potato puree, asparagus and a beetroot jus, as well as our addition of crunch-perfect beans, the lamb did justice to the unrestrained ‘melt in your mouth’ clichés I spouted. Luckily, both my partner-in-dine and I ordered matching mains or there would have been menu-envy awkwardness to deal with. We toasted our ordering nous with a bottle of the heady Black Label Shiraz and proceeded to almost lick our plates clean. The after-glow of that lamb left me uninterested in the dessert menu, so we retired to the couches next to the faux-fire to polish off our wine with a selection of cheese – the double brie was a standout.
Rae’s menu is both limited in some ways and unrestrained in others (there were a number of fruit-based meat dishes I found confusing) but it’s a solid performer in the region’s fine dining arena. Dinner in summer and lunches throughout the year allow diners to enjoy the spectacular surrounds, but even after sundown, this restaurant is worth a visit.