There was nothing flash about the menu. But there doesn’t have to be. Inner city chefs write over-elaborate menu descriptions, but country hotel cooks fight the trend by truncating them. In the city, you might have ordered ‘boutique pale ale and panko-battered tails of estuary flathead with seasonal foraged vegetables served with a house-made tartare of locally-grown cucumber gherkins’. Not here. Someone had chalked ‘flatty tails’ on the blackboard menu. Tracy ordered these and I had the roast.
The tails were good. There were five, and they curled together around the plate like a hand of bananas. Each tail sat inside a fat pocket of crunchy batter, which sealed the moisture inside and the fish stayed hot and succulent. The accompanying vegetables were good and neither overcooked nor undercooked. The roast of the day was a large plate of thick discs of almost-melting flesh under made-from-scratch pan juice gravy, and the roasted vegetables beside the meat were almost caramelized on the outside and steaming on the inside. A roast like that needs nothing. Not even salt and pepper. Maybe a glass of wine or a cold beer. And you go to bed happy because a perfect roast cannot be bettered by any meal anywhere in the world, especially when you eat it on a lazy Saturday night looking out a window at black clouds sitting on a mountain. As we ate, more thunder boomed, getting louder now, and the lightning was closer. This was the tail of the storm that had smashed a narrow line through Melbourne earlier in the day.
We hadn’t ordered bread because we had one eye on the sticky, hot, creamy, chocolaty items chalked onto the dessert board. Sticky date and butterscotch and chocolate sauce puddings might be out of fashion with cutting edge chefs but no-one eats lime sorbet and pistachio biscotti after a roast dinner.
The place was mostly empty now. The waitress took our plates away and suddenly there was a deafening crash. I thought she had dropped the plates behind me, but it was the storm. Then the lights flickered, and after several teetering seconds they went out and stayed out and everything was black. Lightning crashed into the room, illuminating the black intervals like a giant flash camera. After a while someone lit a match and found a candle and the waitress brought more candles and the room was suffused with a soft warm glow. The fans were still turning overhead, idling slowly without power. The storm raged on angrily outside.
Then the waitress came back. “The good news is that you can have another drink. The bad news is that the kitchen is closed so you can’t have dessert,” she told us. “Sorry!” she added, smiling at our haggard expressions on hearing the bad news.
"Don’t apologise. It’s not your fault," I said, nobly. Then, just to make sure, "You don't have to heat the dessert. We'll eat it cold."
She was laughing now. There was a crash in the kitchen, like someone falling over something in the darkness. I paid the bill by candlelight and we left and I drove out of town and into the valley to the house on the side of a steep hill that hangs over the Tarago river.
Kings Arms Hotel
Main Rd, Neerim South