A solo chef and sixteen guests
Claim to fame: A new kind of bespoke regional-Australian fine dining
Reason to go: Hyper-seasonal flavors presented by a chef with fierce focus and a gift for capturing lush textures
Look out for: The quarterly all-vegetarian service, open for bookings three months in advance
Count the number of Per Se alums running restaurants in rural Victoria. You won’t need your other hand, and chances are you’ll probably have a few fingers left to spare. And while Chef Derek Boath may be something of a statistical outlier in these parts, the set-up at Underbar, his restaurant, pushes the situation even further into the realm of the improbable, not least for Ballarat, a gold rush-era city 90 minutes from central Melbourne. During the two weekly services, Boath is the only person in the kitchen. There are two waiters assisting him on the floor, but every plate on the tasting menu is crafted by Boath’s hands.
And rest assured this is no soup kitchen: a lot of work goes into these plates. Heaven only know how many hours Boath puts in before customers arrive for dinner, and during service he doesn’t waste a breath or a gesture, every dish going out picture-perfect.
Gallons of red pepper juice are reduced and carefully counterbalanced with sherry and Champagne vinegar to make the sauce for delicate little yellow peppers stuffed with sweet crab meat, each of them meticulously garnished with a garlic flower and microscopic leaf of nasturtium. The gentle note of warmth from piment d’Espelette is entirely welcome.
The seasons are taken seriously at Underbar. One of the benefits of limiting covers to just 16 a night, too, means that Boath can zero-in on small parcels of produce. Exceptional tomatoes might appear on a “bruschetta” comprised of a whisper of crisp bread with perfectly melting pancetta from a favored Ballarat smokehouse and a tiny hit of lemon thyme, or they could form the basis of an incredibly refreshing consommé, cool, clear and gently accented with lemon oil. Last season’s cherries, meanwhile, might be juiced and used to rehydrate dried cherry tomatoes, plated in turn with fresh new-season cherries.
Though local wine is not in short supply, French naturals from the cleaner end of the spectrum form a significant part of the pairing – the musky blush of a Sancerre made by Sebastian Riffault, say, complementing butter-poached Port Phillip squid in a buttermilk sauce.
The room? It’s a storefront, barely signposted and almost invisible from the outside, on one of Ballarat’s main shopping and dining thoroughfares, the street likewise barely visible from within, all attention tuned to the single large communal table, or the handful of seats at the pass. The look is minimal, but the convivial buzz of guests who have booked their seats a month out keeps things from ever feeling austere. After all, if you’re here, you’re here for a reason. And that reason is good times. The name, you wonder? Underbar is Swedish for wonderful/divine/gorgeous.