Update: We attended this venue in October 2019 and some details may have altered since then.
Provenance has been operating from the gold rush-era Bank of Australasia since 2009 and has inspired many a Melburnian to make the three-and-a-half hour journey to Beechworth, in the High Country. Although you might eat one of the animals from our coat of arms on your visit, the flavours will remind you a little bit of Europe and a lot of Japan – and will be distinctly the signature of chef and co-owner Michael Ryan and the Australia he has built for himself. And trust us, it is bloody brilliant.
You could opt to order your dishes from the a la carte menu, but you just drove for a whole afternoon – go all in for the six-course tasting menu. You’re worth it. There is always an optional starter, and on our visit, it is a house-made silken tofu that has been set just before service, topped with pickled pine mushrooms suspended in a dried mushroom dashi and accented with slithers of ginger that leaves you wanting more. Without letting go of his European training and the Aussie dining expectation, Ryan always begins the meal with house-made sourdough accompanied by miso butter (both the miso and the butter are also made in house). Want more? No worries. It won’t even cost you extra.
Deviate from the tasting menu if you want to try everything. We recommend ordering the duck lap cheong – Ryan’s version of a Chinese sausage – made six months prior, which arrives confidently unadulterated at the table. Brined and dried squid meets the grill and is cut into strips, accompanied by a blob of kewpie, elevating the classic, usually packet-bought, izakaya snack. Our next course is a bulb of Jerusalem artichoke cooked in butter, sitting on top of a risotto made from sunflower seeds flavoured with onion and konbu (edible kelp), brought to life with fresh segments of Cara Cara orange, candied zest, onion flowers and artichoke chips. Following that is a bright and piquant sashimi made from hapuka in a green tomato ponzu, under a dashi jelly set with agar agar, a surprising touch of wasabi, which delivers a necessary smack in the face, and marigold leaves. What you’ll notice is a distinct (and very welcome) lack of micro herbs. Ryan is a champion of excellent local produce and believes you should just let herbs grow. After all, that’s how they develop their flavour. Hear, hear!
The dish that is truly an expression of where Ryan’s cooking is at now is his grilled onigiri – a rice ball that has been charred over the grill and is stick-to-your-teeth crunchy in the greatest way possible – topped with slices of raw mushroom, rare-cooked kangaroo, a melting slab of sea urchin butter and six-month-old, torn, salted shiso leaves that still retain their bright and citric freshness. In a single puck of rice, Ryan straddles Australia and Japan (a country Ryan visits often, runs tours to, and has written a book on) in both ingredients and technique, and delivers a dish developed with patience that is simple to the eye, but with bold clarity of flavour and layers of texture.
The following dishes of crisp, confit duck leg brushed with umeboshi in a beetroot butter, and the mayu-forward (burnt garlic oil) hangar steak with shio koji and eggplant are the crescendo before dessert. If Ryan offers you a deviation from the tasting menu, take it. You could be met with soft-set soy milk topped with house-made chocolate mochi flooded in a soy sauce (house made, again, of course) and cocoa nib caramel (magnificent), or better yet, an edible digestif. Locally grown chinotto from Yackandandah is turned into a granita and tops sweet bursts of lemon curd, chewy amaretti, heady bergamot jelly and wedges of whole poached blood orange. What a way to bid farewell to winter citrus.
You could leave everything in Provenance’s hands and follow the suggested booze pairing (regular or premium), which delivers European and Australian wines, fortifieds and sake, or choose from a diverse wine list that focuses as much on wines from the region as old world wines, sakes, digestifs and whiskies put together by co-owner Jeanette Henderson.
Provenance doesn’t receive the same international recognition that other modern Australian restaurants do, but that’s because it’s not catering to an international audience. Ryan and Henderson are not performing the stereotype of an outback explorer in Ned Kelly country come good, delivering damper, billy tea and snags in an elevated environment; they’re delivering a contemporary Australian experience from the perspective of a global citizen. Provenance is a modern Australian restaurant for modern Australians, and in that sense, it’s an important player in the narrative of Australian dining, today.