Montalto has a new chef! Matt Wilkinson. Famed for his Melbourne café Pope Joan and role in taking Circa St Kilda to its heights, the Yorkshire-born lad grew up with earth under his nails, watching his neighbours ‘force’ rhubarb in their hothouses around Barnsley, his hometown.
The call of the land brought him to Montalto last year, where he has been working with head gardener Julie Bennett and head chef Diana Desensi to take Montalto up a few rungs, based on the produce growing in its deep fertile soil. His aim is to have the beautiful winery restaurant on the north-facing slopes of a valley between Red Hill and Western Port become known as one of the best in the world. “Here they grow their own grapes, their own olive oil, their own fruit and vegetables,” says Matt. “It is the perfect formula.”
We sit in the dining room overlooking the vines, their leaves fallen and the canes waiting for the pruners. Matt explains the winter menu is ever-evolving, depending on what he and gardener Julie feel is ready for the kitchen. The waiter pours a glass of Montalto Cuvee One, a sparkling made of the classic Champagne blend of pinot noir and chardonnay, all aromas of green apples and brioche. Snacks start with salt-baked jerusalem artichoke, smashed, fried ‘til crisp and topped with a quenelle of fromage frais, chives, estate extra virgin olive oil. This is followed by perfectly trimmed and lightly pickled carrots, witlof and radishes with a hot puree of garlic and anchovy – a respectful nod to the Italian bagna cauda. Crisp veg, warm puree, salty, tangy and packed with umami deliciousness. Next are veg courses of brussels sprouts with creamy taleggio and pepper cacio e pepe sauce and fire-roasted beetroot with garlicky cashew cream and buffalo ricotta, earthy yet rich and tangy. Matt always has the best fish he can find, always wild-caught and always pan-fried in butter and oil and served on a bed of sauteed leeks.
Although Matt focuses on veg, his team’s beef ribs, simmered in star anise-infused masterstock, are finished over fire – a masterpiece in flavour, tenderness and generosity of flavour. “We only have the fire pit, an induction plate and an oven,” explains Matt. “Everything in the kitchen is about simplicity. Simplicity. Authenticity. Flavour. Honest food to serve alongside the sensational estate wines,” he says humbly. This reviewer has known Matt for 20 years. The food he is cooking right now at Montalto is the best he has ever done.
BY RICHARD CORNISH.
Richard Cornish is a freelance food writer filing regular food news stories for newspapers and magazines across Australia, including The Age, SMH, Good Food, Eat.Drink and now each month in Mornington Peninsula Magazine. He is also an author, photographer and hosts live food shows including Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Apollo Bay Seafood Festival and Winter Wild Festival. This year Richard will also host the Winter Wine Weekend Long Lunch at the Pavilion.