September 6, 2019 / By Rebecca Crisp
Looking for a weekend escape to tantalise your taste buds? From mouthwatering paella to trendy laneway culture and fresh, local produce, Ballarat has it all. Although most famous for its rich, Gold Rush heritage, Victoria's third-largest city is now in the running to be the leading star in Victoria's competitive dining scene.
Here's my roundup of seven top spots to sink your teeth into the city's best cuisine, complete with atmospheric backdrops and global influences.
This bustling bodega is no pale, Antipodean approximation of a Spanish restaurant – Meigas is the real deal. Chef Jose Fernandez hails from seaside Galicia in north-western Spain, so his menu leans heavily towards fruto del mar. Grilled sardines with aioli, white anchovies in vinegar, and sautéed prawns with chilli and garlic all feature, alongside the indisputable highlight, Galician-style octopus with paprika and olive oil.
If you’re happy to settle in for a leisurely dinner, go for the cooked-to-order paella – it takes 45 minutes but it’s worth every second. And whatever you do, don’t forget to leave room for dessert – churros and tarta de Santiago and crema catalana, oh my!
Moon and Mountain
Once again Ballarat defies expectations with a modern Asian bistro that is anything but your typical country-town Chinese. Moon and Mountain is a slick but relaxed eatery serving up contemporary Asian flavours with an Australian spin. Wash down some Korean popcorn chicken, pork & cabbage pot stickers and pad thai with a fruity cocktail. Have trouble with decisions? Then sit back and let the super friendly staff choose for you with Half or Full Moon option sharing menus.
You might miss underbar’s unassuming frontage on your first pass, but not because it’s a basement bar (as I assumed). In fact, 'underbar' is a delightful Swedish word meaning delectable, divine and marvellous. It’s a bold statement, but by no means unfounded. This tiny, Scandi-chic venue has quite the pedigree – chef Derek Boath earned his stripes at Michelin-starred New York fine-diner Per Se.
For a cool $160 of your hard-earned, Boath serves up a five-course menu of outstanding dishes (and some very fancy snacks) that favour local and seasonal produce. You’ll need to book well advance – underbar is an exclusive little space. Just you and 15 other lucky ducks can score a seat at what feels like an exceptionally well-catered dinner party at the home of your most stylish friend.
Mr Jones Dining
When the owners of the beloved (and hatted) Catfish Thai announced its closure in early 2018, cries of grief were heard across the region. But the mourning period was cut mercifully short by the news that they would be rebooting the place as Mr Jones Dining. After a few months of serving up a casual brand of fine dining based around what was in season and locally available, the Joneses rethought their break-up with Thai food and re-rebooted the eatery.
To the joy of locals and Catfish fans from further afield, Mr Jones is back to dishing out Ballarat’s best modern Asian. Penang chicken curry, pork and shitake dumplings and a zesty salad of pomelo, ginger and toasted coconut are just a few of your choices, but if you just can’t decide, go for the tasting menu. The stylish fit-out and excellent waitstaff make for a truly warm and welcoming space, and the kitchen is only too happy to work around any food intolerances.
One of the best things about Ballarat’s culinary scene is its endless capacity to surprise. And the discovery of a bustling Ethiopian café just off the main strip is certainly unexpected. Café Merkama was opened in 2014 by Ethiopian expat Temam Hussen, who taught himself to cook out of necessity in refugee camps across Africa.
Without doubt, the highlight of a meal at Café Merkama is the lovingly and painstakingly prepared injera bread. Although the grain traditionally used to create this stretchy pancake-like carb (the gorgeously named lovegrass) isn’t found in Australia, Temam has worked hard to mimic this homeland staple using three different kinds of flour. It takes three days to make and doubles as cutlery – just tear off a chunk and scoop up some deliciously spicy red chicken curry or lamb stew.
Not content with lining its streets with great eateries, Ballarat is now developing something of a laneway culture. Down one of these side streets you’ll find Hop Temple, which is exactly what it says on the tin – a shrine to good beer. The former factory space gives Hop Temple a cosy beer hall vibe, but instead of benches and trestle tables, you’ll find club chairs and vintage lamps.
The menu features exactly what you want to soak up your intake of craft beer: pizzas, burgers, nachos and mac & cheese. But if you’re on a health kick (what are you even doing here?), the ‘rabbit food’ section has you covered. Drop in for laidback Sunday sesh or sign up for a boozy art class! Hop Temple runs regular painting classes with a BYO model policy – be it your partner or your pet.
If beer isn’t your thing, Ballarat also boasts a place of worship for cider-lovers. Located 15 minutes out of town on lovely Lake Learmouth, Café Sidra is the cellar door of locally produced 321 Cider. Very little of the menu isn’t made onsite, drawing from the veggie garden, orchard and free-roaming chooks. Settle in by the open fire or lakeside for an award-winning pork and cider pie or some warming chicken pho, washed down with cider made from apples that have travelled no more than 3kms.
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