In the highly competitive hospitality industry, the awarding of Chef’s hats is a very fitting acknowledgement of excellence, innovation and consistency. Although, I do suspect internal peer recognition is held in equal or greater esteem. Owner and Chef Michael Ryan, of Provenance in Beechworth, is not only highly respected as an unofficial ambassador and spokesman for the produce of his region, but his intelligent cuisine is followed and lauded on a far wider level throughout Australia. Forever exploring and refining his unique style, rather than just trotting out safe regional fare; requires courage, integrity and perseverance. Those qualities, and the reputation for his harmonious fusion on the plate, are the point of difference which makes the journey more worthwhile.
The optional amuse ($8) of ‘house-made’ silken tofu, sautéed spanner crab, balanced wasabi, ginger juice and soy; is an irresistible option to choose. Exceptional texture, balance and exquisite nuance momentarily tease the palate before dissipating with the same elegance, and is the perfect pre-cursor to Chef Michael Ryan’s intuitive cuisine. This is further exemplified with a deceptively simple yet elegant play of raw and cooked vegetables, with puffed rice and congee sauce. The nuance of temperature contrasts with sweet and sour flavours, measured pickling and a play of textures elevates an assembly of humble ingredients into a triumph of modern translation. The 2010 Hiokizakura sake enhances the natural harmony of the dish, whilst also offering background depth. The sake is clearly an intelligent matching option, but an optional wine selection is also available.
Perhaps then a dish that partly decodes the unique thought processes behind the cuisine at Provenance. A precise patterned bed of raw zucchini provides a canvas for the ‘finest cut’ air-dried tuna, that resonates on the palate with a dusting of divine olive crumbs, and fried zucchini flowers for heat and texture contrast. The play of pickled zucchini, Longlane capers, anchovy custard and basil oil cohesively add to this master class of balance. The dish exudes confidence, restraint and understanding, with a dash of flair combined on one plate; the heart, let alone the soul and mind of the man and the chef, both there to share and respect the other. As is often the case, the not so pretty dish is usually the tastiest, and the fleshy diamond shell clams and local greens are no different. The taste of the sea is literally brought to inland Victoria, with the seaweed butter working harmoniously with the slow cooked, pickled and fried celery components. Clearly when it tastes this fresh, a reliable seafood provedore is nearly more valuable than the gold that drove the ambition in these parts many years ago.
With menus now saturated with pork, the black Berkshire breed is my preferred choice given its far more distinctive flavour profile, and especially when such an exceptional take on blood pudding is a component of the dish. The pickled cherries and exceptional rhubarb cut across both the richness and weight of the dish, which is served well by the absence of any heavy reduction, allowing the produce to fully deliver its inherit flavour. The exquisite Alpine Dorper lamb neck also delivers on its flavour promise, but appears slightly disconnected with the other elements on the plate. However, I am reticent to be over critical of the dish as the Chef ‘connects the dots’ better than most, and is not afraid to take risks. The vegetable miso is truly exceptional, but the rice cake is a tad ‘one-dimensional’ for my liking as a textural element, and perhaps the overall concept was lost in translation on my palate.
The optional cheese course, Le Conquerant camembert (extra $10 or $18 with wine match), is presented elegantly, with a garnish of pickled wild mushrooms and hazelnuts. The touch that really sets the course off however is the fascinating French Salamandre Eau de Coing Quince liqueur (30ml pour), albeit obvious in a matching sense, is a brilliant choice that has me pondering why it is not done elsewhere, an idea which I intend to pinch nonetheless. The local Wooragee strawberries, with their intense concentrated flavour are astonishing; and with roasted spiced pears, caramelised white chocolate ice cream and vincotto jelly forms a simple, harmonious dessert, with just the right balance of sweetness, and a nice note to finish on.
A strong selection of local wines and a particularly impressive sake list are worthy of mention, as is the service, which is friendly and well-informed. With dining trends swinging like a pendulum without a centre point of reference, Provenance provides a thoughtful and inspired dining experience that resonates with individuality, substance and grace. The journey involved in getting there is perhaps a metaphor for what slowly evolves on the palate and provides an imprint on the sense memory. This is an ideal that unfortunately is being lost elsewhere, as the fads and trends of modern cuisine are often cheaply replicated rather than being slowly refined or developed. In many ways, the regional setting provides the perfect dining headspace to experience the very thoughtful and purposeful food of Chef Michael Ryan. He may have chosen a road less travelled, but it abounds with both richness and truth.
86 Ford Street, Beechworth (Vic)
Wed-Sun 6.30pm until late