‘Nothing is ever created nor destroyed. It only changes form’. This conclusion from the first law of thermodynamics isone of the most eloquent truths in physics. And so it is with Phil Wood leaving the much-vaunted, now-shuttered Eleven Bridge, to make his mark on the picturesque slopes of Merricks in Victoria at Point Leo Estate’s Laura. A loss for NSW, a gain for Victoria. It’s quite the radical departure, moving from the seductively dark and heritage tones of the historic Burns Philip Building to the vast and open Mornington Peninsula unto which the dining room at Laura overlooks. A literal sea change.
Eleven Bridge used to be one of Sydney’s finest fine diners, the unquestionable flagship of Neil Perry. With three hats in its prime, the restaurant was one of only four in the harbour city that bore the honour. It was no stretch to say that Phil Wood was Neil Perry’s right hand man, with his cooking firmly cementing the restaurant as one of my favourites during its reign. To this day, I still miss the restaurant’s spelt bread with kombu liquorice butter, chicken wing medallions, expertly-cooked birds and gueridon service. There really wasn’t another restaurant quite like it.
And that’s the obligatory obituary. Vale, Eleven Bridge. The torch has been passed onto Laura.
While Phil Wood moving on from Perry’s gastro-temple in 2017 meant a blow to Sydney’s fine dining scene, Melbourne’s gain arguably more than offsets the loss – this isn’t a zero-sum game. Sorry, I say Melbourne, but I really meant Melbourne’s south-east. With neatly-arranged vineyards and idyllic green hills on one side and open blue sea on the other, Mornington was already one of the prettiest places in Victoria. Then came a flush truckload of cash to the tune of some $40 million injected into the estate that involved a full-scale renovation, plus the construction of a 19 acre (that’s 76000sqm for those counting at home) sculpture park showcasing a wealth of predominantly Melburnian artists and sculptors. If there were ever a Victorian equivalent of Bondi Beach’s Sculpture by the Seas, this is it – except this one’s permanent. In what is an absolute platitude to the philanthropic Gandel family (the benefactors of Point Leo Estate), I don’t even think one has to visit Point Leo’s restaurants in order to make the drive worthwhile.
Some sights from the sculpture park. Tap to expand.
With that said, Point Leo Estate’s sculpture park is not free; tickets cost $10. But guess what, admission is free for diners at Laura. Neat. And that leads us to the restaurant, or restaurants: in addition to Laura, those looking for a more casual, a la carte experience are catered for by the Point Leo Restaurant. The Gandels brought Phil Wood on not only for Laura, but as culinary director of the entire estate’s F&B operations, so he’s responsible for menus at both venues. However, with Laura the focus of his unbridled creativity, I found him in Laura’s kitchen most often. Yes, it is refreshing to see a vaunted chef still clanging the pans in the kitchen.
Curiously, the two eateries are separated only by a glass door – they otherwise share the same segment of the estate’s circular building. But with Laura having less than half the seats of its counterpart, Zaltos instead of Riedels, more attentive service and a more refined space, the separation is effective.
Of course, the food’s a fair bit different, and more expensive: it’s a set menu only, with diners being able to choose from four, five or six courses at $120, $140 and $160 respectively. Commensurate drink pairings are a reasonable $70, $80 and $90. Then again, the pours weren’t all that generous, so you get what you pay for.
A good thing for tables with diners of varying appetites is that you can mix and match the set menus. On my visit, my less able-bodied dining partners opted for the five course menu, while two of us opted for the full experience. To be fair, one of those courses involved blue cheese, which is already divisive, and perhaps a bullet dodged – it was one of the weaker courses of the meal. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The lunch started on a strong note, a Taralinga Estate olive oil-infused brioche made using locally hand-milled flour served alongside Cape Schanck olive oil that was pressed on the very day. The result? A bready, slightly nutty and warm (yay!) roll that was akin to a fluffy, savoury cake. And that’s before dipping into the luxuriant, flavourful oil. Needless to say, the entire table went for seconds, no deliberation required.
Things then moved onto a literal spoonful of razorback prawns, and by that I really mean just one such prawn, served with pepperberry salt and a chive foam. This was a rather anomalous dish in a menu that otherwise lives up to its ‘locavore’ promise – the prawns were from Ocean Made Seafood…in Western Australia. Hmm.
The entrée of squid & carrot salad, resting on a yolk sauce made from Heritage Farm duck eggs in Moorooduc was revelatory – not because of the slippery squid, or even the unctuously delicious egg sauce. But because of the way the carrots were cooked low and slow, to a point of such sweetness that I could genuinely have been fooled to believe that they were sweet potatoes.
The next course was ostensibly a Flinders Pier mussel, served in its shell and arriving with sweetcorn cooked in a lavender broth. This was perhaps the most technical dish, and boy it was a good trick: the mussel shell as it turns out, wasn’t that at all. It was a scallop mousse (darkened with presumably squid ink) that nested pre-roasted mussels inside, and the whole thing steamed. Damn, that’s clever, and well done for showing this jaded fine diner a totally new, almost Heston-like way to present an otherwise common crustacean.
If there had to be a singularly most delicious dish, it would be the Hawkes Farm dutch cream potato from Boneo, luxed up with creamed spanner crab and Yarra Valley salmon roe and beurre blanc. An optional dollop of caviar was eschewed. It was akin to a fine-diner version of the potato upper half of the best Shepard’s pie I’ve ever had: and that’s a mighty fine compliment, even if I say so myself.
At Eleven Bridge, Wood’s cooking was decidedly East-Asian with classical technique, even if we’re talking about a Modern Australian restaurant (but perhaps, that’s exactly what it is). At Laura, things are similar, yet different. Flavours are a bit more delicate, the produce has become – where practicable (those WA prawns?) – highly local. But the old ways remain: like Eleven Bridge, fanciful gastronomy isn’t what dominates the plate, just classical techniques but with enough of a twist.
For the final main, diners choose from one of two options (regardless of courses previously picked). One of them is a blanquette of duck from Great Ocean Ducks (spelling GOD; well done), served with lamb sweetbreads and what I believe was a pea sauce. It might not be the best duck I’ve ever had, but there’s less to talk about here, precisely because everything went just as Phil intended: flawlessly. Eleven Bridge, after all, served some excellent birds.
The other main option was a steamed snapper in nori w/Daniel’s Run heirloom tomatoes and prawn oil. This was a mediocre dish, if only relative to the bangers that have come out of the kitchen so far. There was nothing technically wrong with the cooking, the flavours were a bit too loose and too thin.
Then we come to the divisive Berrys Creek blue cheese on a spongy ‘pancake’, cognac-infused diced pear cream, all resting in a bed of red lentils that strongly evoke the memory of azuki. As someone who is totally at peace with blue cheese, I found it – as good and powerful as it is – to be almost jarringly separate to its elements underneath. If this is the $20 differentiator between the five and six course menu, I’d be happy picking the cheaper option next time.
A politic dessert comes in the vanilla cream diplomat with coconut sorbet, basil and macerated Sunny Ridge strawberries – which are probably the best strawberries this side of the globe. A refined, restrained finish.
As a devout Sydneysider, even I’m ready to put aside my biases and claim that at this rate, no state does regional dining better than Victoria. I’d say ‘welcome to the Peninsula, Phil, make yourself at home’, but instead I’ll be the one doing just that.
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Laura at Point Leo Estate
- Beautiful dining in a beautiful setting
- Sculpture park entry is a nice bonus!
- It was a long lunch; service between some courses was very slow
- Bigger stomachs may leave un-satiated
- Turn it into a luxe Mornington weekender by spending a night at nearby Lindenberry at Red Hill or Jackalope Hotel to make the most of the great south-east. (affiliate links)
Would I return: yes
F7.5 | S4 | A3
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