I do wonder if the designers of Willow Creek’s metamorphosis have ever seen Donnie Darko. This fairly recent incarnation of one of the oldest wineries on the Mornington Peninsula has the Jackalope as its mascot – a peculiar, antlered bunny with more than it’s share of the dark side. I suppose it’s a Wyoming drop bear of sorts – a fearsome fictional incarnation of an innocuous local creature, designed to frighten children and naive tourists.
But the icon just looks like Frank to me. That ominous, robotic-voiced Halloween character that haunts Donnie Darko’s tangent universe, guiding him into mischief and inevitably towards lethal danger. And so, it’s impossible not to feel a little freaked out while navigating the space to the restaurant from the carpark, around a seven-metre statue of a jackrabbit antelope hybrid, compounded by the hotel’s angular, neoteric design, where everything, from the decks and doors to the chair backs, is oversized, underlit, chemical, contrasting and slightly but wonderfully disconcerting. Not really what you would expect for a restaurant that works predominantly with local ingredients and their own kitchen garden.
“Doot doot doot” is apparently the name of the leader of the “flaggerdoot” – which is itself a herd of freaky Franks (Jackalopes). However, information on this seems to be sparse, so it’s possible someone just made that up and it’s perpetuated to overshadow some more dubious meanings on urban dictionary. Whatever the case, I’m convinced that someone was heavily into the native product (and halfway through Alice and Wonderland), whilst deciding on the names of the new venues at Willow Creek.
Fortunately, once you get past all the casings, Doot doot doot is not completely bamboozling, nor is it nearly as scary as mythical beasts or nightmares from another reality. The menu is organic, and I mean that in the most basic sense of the word – it’s reliant on simple, seasonal, natural local produce, with dishes naturally evolved around hero ingredients. The degustation is not exhausting (5 courses), the recipes are made with familiar flavours, food presentation is inspiring but not unachievable for the good home cook, and the service is warm and chatty.
The April menu I was fortunate enough to taste (pictured) has just expired, and you’ll find the current one online here. Some might find the wording a little wanky, what with its briefness on food and stories in lieu of wine names (please, just tell me what I’m drinking), but it works when these are matched by wait staff who know exactly where each ingredient has come from, right down to the side of the hill and even who drove the truck to get it to the kitchen. For the chefs, I suppose a menu like this also allows freedom of expression within the month that it exists, allowing for minute unexpected seasonal fluctuations.
Produce is definitely fresh, and each ingredient is treated with respect. Flavours are intense and delicate, balanced and contrasting just where you need them to be. There’s texture and colour abounding, even on the kids menu. This is also degustation style (4 courses for $55) but carefully designed for picky palates, and an incredible introduction to fine dining if you want to raise budding gourmets or market gardeners.
Drinks are as exciting and local as the food, with a good representation from Willow creek, of course, which is not a bad thing. Unlike many other winery restaurants however, there is a stack of other excitement to be found – there are over 20 wines by the glass, predominantly small producers from Victoria and then some quirky bits and bobs from around the world, with plenty of emphasis on regional character and ability to match with food. This is followed by an elaborate and daunting further 12 pages by the bottle. There’s not much under $60 a bottle, but with some help from the somme, you’ll find something more than a little enlightening.
Meals can be followed by an amble around the vineyard and cellar door, a whip around the kitchen garden or digestive in the Flaggerdoot bar. Perhaps an overnight in one of the 46 rooms (or “lairs”) accessed down a neon-lit, geometric rabbit hole. My kids are begging for an overnight stay, but it’s got that anti-youth look to it. Think I might keep it to myself next time…