To begin the new year, my girlfriend and I drove east from Melbourne to have lunch at the Wild Dog winery just out of Warragul, a choice based on a recent review from Claire at Melbourne gastronome. It was the first part of a pleasant long weekend escaping the city. When we arrived we tasted a few wines, then went to the restaurant area and stood around, looking obviously in need of attention or assistance. Two wait staff walked by and ignored us before a third came to our assistance. Service failure number one.
I explained that we had a booking for 12.30pm. The waiter looked in the book and said there was no booking. I definitely made a booking over the phone about two weeks ago, I responded. He looked harder at the book but no booking appeared. He said although we had no booking he had a table for two available and led us to it. Service failure number two – don’t act like the customer is lying. If I turn up to a regional winery restaurant for lunch on a special day that is likely to be busy, like New year’s Day, and say I have a booking, it’s because I have a booking.
Soon after being seated we were brought bread for the table – cheap supermarket rolls with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. This made me feel not so special – I don’t eat these at home and certainly don’t choose to eat them when out at a restaurant. Our table was set with cutlery, napkins and water and wine glasses, but no water was offered. Service failure three. We asked for water and ordered wine. The waitress returned with a jug of water, placed it on the table and walked away without pouring it for us. Service failure four.
I was relieved when our entrees arrived and proved to be of high quality. My zucchini flowers (above) and my partner’s trout with poached egg and asparagus (below) were both delicious. I have to quote the menu now to explain the dishes: ‘Warragul zuchinni flowers filled with house smoked salmon, and Tarago triple cream, lightly tempurred, lemon beurre blanc, Yarra Valley salmon roe, micro herbs.’ And ‘Koo Wee Rup grilled asparagus, house smoked Noojee trout fillet, local watercress, free range poached egg, house verjuice hollandaise.’
My partner ordered barramundi with broad been puree and balsamic tomato for the main meal, AKA ‘Garfield barramundi fillet oven roasted, broad bean puree, semi dried balsamic infused Gippsland tomato, garlic roasted field mushroom, truffle butter’ (below). I tasted a bit and liked it, but was not sure how all these flavours, particularly the very sweet tomatoes, came together.
I ordered rack of lamb (below), AKA ‘Traralgon lamb rack, south Gippsland pea mash, crisp sweet wok fried garlic, caramelised onion jus.’ It was perfectly done – tender, rich and with great flavour. There is evidently someone talented in the kitchen, but I wonder if she / he has a Jekyll / Hyde issue, or is being messed around by some smarmy marketing / business manager who thinks they can ‘improve’ the menu by using more words.
‘Micro’ herbs? Dude, you’re trying way too hard. Going as local as possible? Excellent. But naming everything? Tryhard. Cutting corners with blah bread? Unbecoming of a serious restaurant. Not training your staff to deliver basic service? A poor business decision. They failed to make me feel comfortable and relaxed.
We paid, bought a few bottles and left. I like their buttery chardonnay and the rich cabernet franc, but I doubt I will return. Wild Dog tries too hard to be so very contemporary and clever and in the meantime it forgets the basics, like greeting customers and pouring them a glass of water. They don’t need to be clever. All they have to do is cook great local produce to best match their wine. Let others dabble in advanced wankery.
We laughed during our meal as we realised we were not alone in the ‘no booking’ debacle. Once we had begun our meal the restaurant started to fill with 1pm bookings. As we were seated quite near the entrance area, we could hear the opening conversations. Each party arrived and announced a booking, the existence of which was denied by the waiter. His disbelief in the honesty of his customers was consistent. He didn’t seem to perceive the pattern.
Evidently whoever had been taking the phone bookings in mid December had written them only on the back of their hand. After the first five, we stopped listening…