You would expect a foodie road trip to include a feeding frenzy, but not quite like this. We are heading out to the Gippsland Lakes, four hours' drive east of Melbourne, with Lonsdale Eco Cruises.
Our captain, Tony Fredericks, takes us out to the breakwater to see the small colony of fur seals that lives right where the lakes meet the open sea and the water is churning, the boat being shaken like a margarita. The seals don't seem to mind though as they float on their backs in the choppy water.
Then we head for the Gippsland Lakes but we hit a natural traffic jam.
As we cruise through a narrow channel, the fur seals meet up with a pod of dolphins all chasing schools of fish – perch, bream and tailor – forcing them to the surface. The fish draw birds – cormorants, pelicans and terns – that cast a cloud over the water.
The resulting mayhem even seems to impress our hardened captain, Tony, who remarks: "I'm glad all these birds are around us and not over us." So thick was the water with wildlife that he had to slow the boat to a crawl.
Gippsland takes up a huge piece of south-eastern Victoria and the central and western parts are known for wineries, produce, and freakishly large earthworms. But we are here to focus on the eastern corner.
Farm-to-table is bandied about a lot in the food industry but in East Gippsland the variety of produce and freshness makes it feel more genuine, and when one of the first things you see is the seafood leaping out of the ocean you know you're in for some good meals.
Before hitting the lakes we had our first taste of the east at Albert & Co, a waterfront diner that takes its interior cues from the white-washed ships' hulls opposite in the Lakes Entrance harbour. It's a locals-first approach with whipped Shadows of Blue Gippsland goat's cheese on a house brioche roll and Gippsland Jersey Milk in the Five Senses coffee.
Lakes Entrance is a well-known holiday spot and our base of The Esplanade Resort & Spa – a family resort with good-sized rooms with a pool and spa to keep the kids busy – makes for easy exploring of the area's dramatic beaches, such as the clifftop descent to nearby Lake Tyers Beach.
If our Gippsland Lakes fauna free-for-all taught us anything, it is that the locals love seafood, so the day after our cruise we are off for a special lunch. Sardine has been the regional poster child since scoring a hat in The Good Food Guide 2019.
The restaurant, by ex Vue de Monde chef Mark Briggs, is set in a Paynesville shopfront across from Eagle Point Bay. The diner is coloured the muted greys of an ocean squall with decor treated as simply the fish dishes. Briggs' menu changes regularly, depending on what is swimming past, and it is big on sustainability so Mark likes to show off less popular fish to help curb overfishing of tried-and-true species such as bream and salmon.
We start our fish feast with duckfish tartare served on a crisp wonton with a hint of shiso ponzu and the snap of a few well-placed edamame. The titular fish – another breed that is not to everyone's taste – comes from Lakes Entrance and is slathered with a coriander mojo (a fresh, herby sauce popular in the Canary Islands). Roasted bug tails in a miso caramel add some sweetness to the shared table.
For wine we go with a Gippsland pinot from Lightfoot and Sons, where we pay a cellar-door visit to on the way home. Here you can taste the rest of the range on a clifftop terrace, where you can see the layers of limestone that makes this such a great area to grow grapes.
What quickly becomes evident on our trip is the spirit of collaboration between the players in the East Gippsland food scene, not just between producers and venues but between the restaurants themselves; in these waterside locales a rising tide really does lift all boats.
We have moved on to Bairnsdale, where we start the day at Northern Ground, so named for chef Rob Turner who hails from West Yorkshire in the north of England. Rob started out as a development chef for upmarket British retailer Marks and Spencers before taking over Northern Ground and changing the way the café – an art-covered alcove on Bairnsdale's main drag – did things.
"When I got here there was no collaboration," Turner says. "But now it's getting better between the restaurants, between the suppliers and between the growers; everyone is getting together and shaking things up."
Northern Ground is serving almond milk chia puddings covered in edible flowers and Hope Farm fruit toast, dishes you used to have drive 300 kilometres to Melbourne to get.
Turner is a great example of this connectivity. As well as being a regional champion and sourcing his produce from 15 minutes away or less, he shares the same fish supplier as Sardine and has nothing but praise for our next stop: Long Paddock.
Our final feed on our East Gippsland odyssey might be a geographic outlier, set away from the coast in the town of Lindenow, but it is a key player in the food scene here. This seemingly humble café, in an old bakery, runs regional food nights, or special dinners pairing the great food with local beers from quirky boutique brewer Sailors Grave Brewing. It is also based where the Mitchell River flows past farms full of fresh produce, much of which will end up on your plate.
Husband-and-wife team Anton Eisenmenger and Tanya Bertino bring their long history of fine diners to the local café scene. So while your meal may arrive on mismatched grandma plates, the food is simple but rich with the flavours of stocks that have been reduced for hours and meats that have been slow cooked in the 100-year-old oven out back.
The pan-fried gnocchi, organic Gippsland brie and local asparagus is as green as the fields we look out onto, while grain salad with roast cauliflower is full of nuts, seeds and herbs with a welcome tang of Persian fetta.
Serves are country-big but I can't leave without trying the rhubarb cheesecake, a transcendent wedge of dairy that reminds me of my nan's signature stewed fruit.
If the dolphins and seals were to cruise past the window of Long Paddock right now, they would recognise a feeding frenzy when they saw one.
The Esplanade Resort & Spa is right at the start of Lakes Entrance and a good place to start your trip. Doubles from $199; 1 The Esplanade; (esplanaderesort.com.au). The Riversleigh is a boutique stay comprising two historic stately homes and perfectly placed to head out to Paynesville and a lunch at Sardine. Doubles from $195; 1 Nicholson Street, Bairnsdale; (riversleigh.com.au). Long Paddock is at 95 Main Road, Lindenow; (longpaddock.com.au).
Albert & Co is the best morning spot in Lakes Entrance; 201 Esplanade, Lakes Entrance. Sardine is the hatted eatery that been attracting visitors to the region, 3/69A Esplanade, Paynesville; (sardineeaterybar.com). Northern Ground serves up great local produce in a café environment, 144 Main St, Bairnsdale (facebook.com/northerngroundfood). With arty cans and wild ingredients (sea figs, mushrooms, sea salt), Sailor Grave Brewing is doing things differently, 7 Forest Rd, Orbost; (sailorsgravebrewing.com).
Lonsdale Eco Cruises is a family-run affair by Tony and Mel Frederick, fourth-generation Gippslanders. The cruise offers wildlife spotting, from dolphins to wedge-tailed eagles, and Mel cooks up some seriously epic scones in the galley. Prices from $50 per adult. See lonsdalecruises.com.au
Paul Chai was a guest of East Gippsland Marketing.