New Star for the Yarra Valley

Travel editor Winsor Dobbin explores a gourmet drawcard in the Yarra Valley and discovers an affordable new place to stay in Melbourne.

It has taken just a few years for Levantine Hill to become a Yarra Valley wine tourism icon.

In addition to a superb range of wines crafted by former Yarra Yering winemaker Paul Bridgeman, there is an excellent tasting area, two eateries, a sculpture garden, superb views and room for helicopters to land – which they do with regularity.

It’s a family business, with owner Elias Jreissati’s daughter Samantha as joint managing director, and blocks in the home vineyard named after all three of his adult daughters. Jreissati arrived in Australia aged 18 from Lebanon, speaking no English. He started out with a sandwich shop, amassed a property fortune by age 25, only to lose it all. He then built it again through his Bensons Property Group.

The estate comprises two vineyards, one planted in the 1990s; the other with family blocks created alongside a truffiére. The first vintage was in 2012.A new state-of-the art winery is being built on site, along with a conference space and a classic car museum. There are also plans for luxury cottages on the banks of the Yarra. Now there is even more reason to visit; recently arrived chef Luke Headon has lifted the bar at Ezard @ Levantine Hill restaurant, elevating it to a destination eatery.

Byron Bay-born Headon has worked for some of the best chefs in the world, including notoriously demanding Marcus Wareing and Heston Blumenthal in Britain. He had a brief stint at Collins Quarter after returning to Australia from an eight-year stint working at venues including The Fat Duck and Story London.

I was fortunate enough to sample an eight-course degustation lunch crafted by Headon earlier this month and it more than lived up to its billing, matched with a selection of estate wines.

“I think there is huge potential with what we do at Levantine Hill and I’ve worked hard to ensure the menu is more focused on Yarra Valley ingredients,’’ Headon said.

“I think we’ve got to celebrate the real sense of community in the Yarra Valley and I’ve been keen to encourage local suppliers and growers to work with us.

“I was drawn to the newly created role of executive chef and Levantine Hill because of the opportunity to expand on the solid foundations and standards set by chef Teage Ezard and the restaurants relationship with our world-class wine maker Paul Bridgeman.

“Paul and I chat weekly. We have a great relationship and if I have a thought about a new dish, I pick his brain and get an idea of how it could work with Levantine Hill’s museum or, new release wines.”

A new Signature Restaurant menu is in place with a new look All-Day Dining menu. The herb garden at Levantine Hill is also getting a makeover and will be expanded via a local farmer replicating what is grown in the garden to create the required herb harvest so there is an adequate supply throughout a seasoned menu.

The new All-Day Dining Menu takes its inspiration from a Parisian brasserie setting with the emphasis on sharing plates and a heavy European influence. The degustation at the Signature eatery is simply superb, with service to match. From house-baked bread and Yarra Valley butter to an audacious duo of desserts, just about everything shines (although I was underwhelmed by a Wagyu beef brisket dish).

Stars of the show include cuttlefish with oyster mushroom, kombu and sea herbs; an amazing salad of scallops, local tomatoes and green strawberries; and airy saffron cappelletti with goat curd, date and macadamia (a fabulous match with the 2016 Estate Chardonnay). Meatier courses include pork belly with pease pudding, witlof and burnt apple; and moist duck with beetroot, cashew and bay leaf. It is all very, very good.

An eight-course tasting menu costs $195, or a five-course menu $135, with a range of wine matchings available depending on your thirst; or wallet.

Levantine Hill is at 882-886 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream.

Melbourne has new twin hotels sharing many of the same facilities in one of the best locations in town.

Located in the heart of the Melbourne CBD, next to the busy Hardware Lane dining precinct, Novotel Melbourne Central and Ibis Melbourne Central are just a few metres to Melbourne’s shopping precinct with easy access to Docklands and Southbank via a free tram ride.

For lovers of Asian food there are dozens of choices on the doorstep – as well as a spectacular Asian supermarket.

I stayed in the very comfortable Novotel part of the building in a room that featured a giant flat-screen TV and free wifi. The room was spacious although the bathroom design was a little odd with the sink located in the bedroom.

There’s a well-stocked mini bar, a plethora of pillows and quality bathroom amenities. The lifts, too, are fast, not always the case in busy high-rise city properties.

Well situated for business travellers – within close proximity to major office towers – the complex features a casual eatery, restaurant, bar and conference facilities.

Located on Little Lonsdale Street, the hotels feature 483 guestrooms and the 35-floor tower is AccorHotels Australia’s first vertical new-build multi hotel development. Ibis Melbourne Central comprises the lower tiers of the tower and make up 270 premium-economy guest rooms, whilst Novotel (below) starts from level 20 with 213 4.5-star guest rooms and suites. The budget-priced Ibis offers some of Melbourne’s best accommodation value.

Pretty Boy Italian Steak House (I did not have dinner here) serves impressive buffet breakfasts to set you up for the day, although the vibe is a little soulless.

Floyd’s is a casual bar and eatery with cheese and charcuterie selections, while Goldie Asian Canteen + Brews is open from dawn to dark.

Look out for some very tasty online deals.

Novotel Melbourne Central/Ibis Melbourne Central: 399 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000. (03) 9068 5458.