Cooper has recently returned to Victoria after six years in Sydney. We don’t need to stir old rivalries but let’s just say he’s glad to be back. His last job in Melbourne was at venerable South Melbourne pub O’Connell’s but Cooper was keen to head country for his homecoming. He’s taken on the dining room at Bianchet Winery and has started showing a tired premises some love. The restaurant is cosy enough, with a fireplace and curtains to keep out the valley’s chill. The open kitchen is framed by cookbooks, signalling a seriousness of culinary intention. Service is willing and cheerful; Cooper delivers some dishes, sharing tales of dish development.
By summer, there’ll be a pizzeria and wine bar too but the current focus is on building an audience. That shouldn’t be too hard, not least because prices are extremely fair: $49 for three courses is a steal.
Of course, cheap is nothing if the product isn’t good; Cooper’s food is thoughtful and tasty. A sliver of salmon is poached in buttermilk, then dressed with pickled fennel and tiny vegetable shoots, maybe kale and kohlrabi, tasty wisps of purple and green. It’s a beautiful dish with a lovely balance of sweet and acidic, soft and crunchy. Cooper doesn’t mind the occasional mind-bender: dehydrated yellow watermelon is scattered with preserved duck (salted, dried then grated like bonito). It’s piquant and sweet but the melon is squidgy and odd: I file this one as interesting, not delightful. Perhaps that’s another byproduct of the whole-beast thing: when you have odd bits to use, some dishes turn out wonderful, some lean towards weird.
The slow-braised meat items are firmly in the wonderful camp. Braised beef brisket is layered with curried spinach and wrapped in puff pastry. It’s somewhere between beef Wellington and a French pithivier and is altogether fabulous. Secondary lamb cuts – neck, shoulder, belly – are brined, braised, thickened with a lamb roux, rolled into sausages and wrapped in strands of spiralised potato. The whole package is then fried. It’s the apogee of dressed up meat ‘n’ spud: fancy, succulent and delicious.
Some chefs are bored with chocolate. The rest just give the people what they want. Cooper’s star dessert is based on a nemesis, the love child of chocolate mousse and cake, garnished with local fruit and honey curd. It’s a nicely rendered crowd-pleaser that also highlights Yarra Valley produce, and in that sense is emblematic of Fable Dining Room itself.