REVIEW: Winter Weekend Escape in Healesville

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Dreaming of a winter weekend escape? Healesville has long been known as a foodie’s destination. Here, in the heart of the Yarra Valley, you’ll find a vast selection of wineries, cafes and bakeries, food stores, gastro pubs and fine-dining restaurants. In recent years, Healesville also welcomed renowned gin distillery Four Pillars…yet one more reason to make the one-hour drive from Melbourne.

We found a cosy 4-bedroom house on Airbnb, just a stone’s throw from the main street. With a roaring open fire, big comfy sofas and electric blankets on all the beds, this was the perfect base for a cold and wet weekend. On Friday evening, we arrived with our bottles of wine, lots of cheese, and enough Haighs chocolate to sink a ship.

After eating and drinking our way around town, we’re pleased to bring you our weekend notes. Plus we’ve included some insider info on the best way to serve your G&Ts!

Friday Dinner - Giant Steps Wine Cellar

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Only 5 minutes walk from home, this was the perfect dinner spot, with a mouth-watering menu designed for sharing. After some advice from our helpful waiter, we settled on the arancini balls to start, followed by a bowl of mussels cooked in tomatoes and fennel, and the 12 hour braised lamb shoulder. The sides were hard to resist so we ordered one of each: the locally-sourced Brussels sprouts with jamon, manchego and sherry vinegar; the witlof salad; and parmesan and truffle oil fries. And all washed down with a Giant Steps Chardonnay.

To finish, we were tempted by both desserts, so we shared the melt-in-your-mouth bread and butter pudding (made with croissants and quince) and the Valrhona chocolate tart.

Saturday Lunch - 400 Gradi, Rochford Winery

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Set in its own separate building on the Rochford estate, 400 Gradi is an impressive modern building with huge glass windows that overlook the adjacent dam. Given the rainy weather, it was a muddy walk to the entrance - just make sure you don’t wear your best shoes if it’s wet!

The Italian-inspired menu offers a delicious selection of wood-fired pizzas, pastas and risotto, and once again, a tempting range of sides. All the food was impressive, but we voted two stand-out dishes - the olive ascolane (giant olives filled with veal and bread crumbed) and the risotto al porcini, a creamy risotto of porcini mushrooms, gorgonzola and walnuts. To drink, we enjoyed the Sparkling Blanc de Blanc.

Saturday Late Afternoon - Four Pillars Gin Distillery

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This was a much-anticipated feature of our weekend - and it was discouraging to see a longish queue when we arrived. But the staff managed this well, with frequent updates on the length of the wait (about 20 minutes in total). And note - if you’d rather wait until the queue is shorter, Payten and Jones wine bar across the road is a great place to pass the time.

At Four Pillars, there are several options - either head straight in to the retail counter (no waiting in the queue), or sign up for a gin tasting / educational class ($10 per person, redeemable on purchase of a bottle), or wait for a table in the bar area to enjoy a gin cocktail. We were keen for all three options, so hence the wait!

The gin class involved 5 different tastings - with an explanation of the ingredients in each. Our host also explained the best garnish to serve with each - so pay attention if you enjoy a G&T!

  • Traditional Four Pillars - serve with tonic and garnish with sliced orange

  • Navy Strength - serve with tonic and garnish with lime kaffir and ginger

  • Spiced Negroni - serve with tonic and garnish with grapefruit or blood orange

  • Chardonnay Barrel Gin - recommended without tonic, but serve with a honey ice cube

  • Bloody Shiraz Gin - recommended with tonic and garnish with grapefruit, orange or blood orange

After the tasting, we settled down in the bar and ordered our Spiced Negronis - very nice! There is no kitchen at Four Pillars, but you can buy a dish of olives if you’d like something to accompany your cocktail.

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Saturday Dinner - Healesville Hotel / Cellars

As 7 o’clock rolled around, it was time to head back out into the cold night air for a brisk walk down the street to our dinner venue. If you’re familiar with Healesville, you might remember the cafe/food store Healesville Harvest right beside the pub. This was renovated late last year and is now the Cellars - a very cool wine bar. Enjoy a bottle of wine with a cheese platter - or order from the pub menu and they’ll serve your meal in the Cellars…which is what we did. To be honest, I doubted I would need dinner after our late lunch, but once again, the amazing food on offer was enough to tempt even the most reluctant among us!

The menu included traditional pub classics like cheeseburger and fries or pasta bolognese. Alternatively you can opt for the barramundi, the pork cutlet or the lemon and thyme roasted chicken.

As you’d expect for a place called The Cellars, there is an extensive selection of wine, along with very knowledgeable staff to help with your selection. We decided on a Pinot Noir.

Healesville Hotel also includes the casual bar area with open fire, and a more formal dining room. In summer, the beer garden is a great spot to spend an afternoon.

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Sunday Morning Coffee

Head to Habituel . They also serve a range of food that includes muffins, pastries, soup and loaves of bread to take home for lunch. We were tempted by the raspberry muffin and the breakfast muffin - both varieties were incredible.

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And after all that eating and drinking, we recommend a walk in the beautiful surrounding bush. Head to Donnelly’s Weir (if you don’t drive a 4WD, be prepared to park up by the creek and cross by foot - we found a plank of wood left by a previous walker). There are several trails depending on how energetic you’re feeling.

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