Top dining experiences are no longer limited to big cities, as regional restaurateurs apply their talent to terrific local produce. Tim Grey takes a trip to Bright in Victoria to be dazzled by Tani and it’s team.
In the shadow of Mount Buffalo, with its enormous granite eggs and eucalypt snowline, is Bright, a town in southeastern Victoria. With an oak-lined avenue and a quietly throbbing river, it’s as near to a mountain idyll as exists in Australia, and it’s not merely its natural beauty that draws visitors. Though only a town of 2,000, Bright is home to one of the most vibrant and idiosyncratic food cultures in the country.
Most people would associate Bright with Simone’s, an Umbrian-style fine-diner that entirely deserves its golden reputation. But around that sturdy foundation revolves a little constellation of newer venues, each decidedly quirky. Thirteen Steps, for instance, could be a Galacian wine bar if it weren’t in a Victorian cellar. Coral Lee meanwhile, is sun-filled country kitchen run by capable, tattooed young women. And Tani, my personal favourite, is some kind of Australian-Japanenese-Nordic remix with natural wine, raw game and some strokes of fermented genius.
Partners in all senses of the word, Hamish Nugent runs the kitchen and Rachel Reed mans the floor and the (excellent) wine list at Tani. Now in its fourth year, the business is the pair’s second venture in the region – Tsubo, their first was a straight-laced Japanese joint in the state’s Falls Creek.
Despite working internationally, Nugent’s metier was, until that point, mostly European. He didn’t know anything about Japanese. “I winged it, basically,” he says, with a self-deprecating laugh. “The first part was a bit strange. I was basically reading a lot to try and figure out what was going on. I felt like a bit of an imposter to be honest, not knowing what the real cuisine was like.”
“It wasn’t until we went to Japan that I realised we were on key, and we were going in the right direction,” he recalls. “We were really surprised! But it was a nice relief at the same time.” That rapid education made an indelible impact on Nugent’s cooking; its influence is still marked in Tani’s kitchen.
Though Tsubo was, by all accounts, successful, the challenges of resort life were not insignificant. They could only operate for four months of the year, while access to quality suppliers was a significant challenge. “The main cost is freight – just getting everything up there,” explains Nugent.
Despite the limited range of produce and the cost of shipping, charging a premium wasn’t a realistic option. “Days of charging a premium in the snow fields are gone. People aren’t stupid; you can’t get away with ripping people off,” he says.
So the pair sold up and relocated down the mountain. Obviously, the thought of year-round business was appealing, but it’s the access to great-quality local suppliers that the pair found really attractive.
“The smarter thing would be closer to a metropolitan centre, like Melbourne or Albury Wodonga, where there’s a population”, he says. “We have no major population here [in Bright], but we would have lost that connection with suppliers that we have, so we would have had to have started again.”
"Down here we have a lot stronger connection with our suppliers, and there are a lot of small growers, even non-commercial suppliers who’ll bring us stuff like radishes.”
That access has driven Nugent’s menu, which retains that Japanese inflection but is primarily shaped by regional seasonality. At the moment, for instance, Nugent is working with a new supplier of Murray River cod to come up with a new dish.
“It’s a super temperamental fish – it can go really mushy, it’s not really desirable in the mouth, but it has a very attractive gamey flavour to it. We lightly butter poach it, so it’s texture is sort of tacky. It’s served with warrigal greens and macadamia nuts.”
As a chef, Nugent is attracted to sour ferments, gelatinous textures, gamey flavours and offal. It’s pretty risky food for a tourist destination, not to mention small-town Australia. By his own admission, when the restaurant first opened, the menu was “pretty out there”.
“We’ve cut it back quite a lot to make it more approachable,” he explains. “We had hearts and giblets, which sounds awful but it was tasty. But it just doesn’t work here, full-stop.”
Despite the occasional turned-up noses, the restaurateurs were also careful not to go too far in a safe direction. By reverting to a more conservative menu, Tani would risk losing its unique identity – not to mention stifling the creative energy of its owners. “We’re not for everybody, at the end of the day,” Nugent says, thoughtfully. “And we also don’t aim to be for everybody.”
One method of getting diners to try something new is by guiding them through a degustation. Set menus, Nugent believes, are an excellent tool for moving customers a little out of the zone of comfort.
“We have a raw wallaby dish on at the moment, and that sells really well to people who’ve eaten it before as part of the set menu. But, if they haven’t had it before they won’t order it, because it’s too confronting,” he says. “The set course works really well for us in that sense, because people are willing to give things a try if they’re not sure what it is.”
The other method of meeting people halfway is Tani’s casual eatery, a bar area that serves more accessible cuisine: karage fried chicken, okonomoyaki, pork buns, rib-eyes, half-ducks, and lots of side dishes. “The bar side is really chilled out,” Nugent says. “It’s the sort of food we want to eat on our days off.”
There are a few more challenging dishes on the menu too – a local cold-smoked salmon with koji buttermilk and fried leeks, for instance. “We kind of sneak some restaurant element in there,” Nugent giggles.
Both Nugent and Reed were concerned that the bar would be the more popular, cannibalising the business they wanted for the restaurant. Thankfully, the reality was the inverse of their expectations. “It’s actually worked the opposite. It works as a holding bar now, where if people come in while the place is full, they’ll sit down and wait,” says Nugent.
Essentially, Nugent and Reed are establishing a foundation. By carefully assessing their audience’s tastes but also by keeping faith with their own, the couple are establishing a business that could unquestionably last as long as Simone’s has next door.
“We’re constantly growing, but honestly, it has been a slow growth. It wasn’t that sort of boom success overnight,” describes Nugent. “But it’s solid. I can see it lasting longer rather than it being a trend restaurant right away.”
Tani’s story is, no doubt, individual, but there are similar ones emerging all around the country. Gone are the days where “regional cuisine” was synonymous with an over-grilled lamb cutlet. While the growth of hospitality – in financial terms but also creatively – is accelerating in our capitals, some of the most exciting dining is happening outside the major cities. Along with the likes of The Stag, Biota and Brae, Tani may well be evidence of Australia’s bush renaissance