Eat out: Bistro Lola

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Score 13.5/20

Address 30 Hargraves Street, Castlemaine, 03 5472 1196, bistrolola.com.au

Open Tue-Sat 6pm-late

Cost Starters $13-$15, mains $30-$34. Set menus $35/$50

Drinks Eclectic Victorian wines, beers and spirits with European outliers, lots of vermouths

Wheelchair Yes

What If I told you that somewhere in Victoria you could watch Nashville singer Justin Townes Earle, eat a choc top and a bowl of spaghetti and get a bottle of burgundy under one party-light-festooned deco roof?

Do you need to be told that you’re in Castlemaine? Not if you work in the arts or environmental policy. You already moved here when you turned 37. If you didn’t: welcome to the town affectionately known as North Northcote, and more specifically, to the Theatre Royal.

Since December, one of Australia’s oldest theatres has been in the hands of musicians Felicity Cripps and Tim Heath, filmmakers Andrea Distefano and Campbell Hynam-Smith, and Jono Hill, co-owner of Wide Open Road Coffee Roasters and Carlton wine bar Heart Attack and Vine. With their not insignificant powers combined, they have created a gig-and-food-fuelled Coney Island for adults.

In the morning there’s good espresso and cakes put out by Cripps. By night you can claim a whole blanket-furnished settee in the theatre for a screening of Paris Can Wait. The night we roll up, burly anglers are getting an eyeful of the world’s most pervy fishing spots at the Fly Fishing Film Festival. Not for you? Bistro Lola may bridge the gap.

Open for two months, filling two tight floors to the left of the cinema, it’s named for controversial gold rush-era performer Lola Montez. There are worse namesakes than the whip-wielding, Alexander Dumas-dating queen of tease who tolerated zero BS. A Ballarat reporter once slammed her infamous spider dance in which she would rip off skirts in an ever-increasing frenzy. She retaliated by horsewhipping the editor.

Lola the bistro is less likely to cause a hot flush, but it’s got some spark. The drinks list is laced with Australian gins and Okar (like home-grown Campari), craft beers and yeasty and bone dry ancestral sparklings especially. Sharp minerally chardonnays from Mount Macedon sit next to those from the Jura. The list, compiled by co-owner Campbell Hynam-Smith and manager Loudon Cooper, is likeable for reading far more of personal tastes than trends.

Food-wise it follows, with a vibe that is definitely “dinner-at-a-mate’s”. Tables are stripped bare but for a spray of flowers, and the bone-handled butter knives are classic nanna artillery. It’s chef Sarah Curwen-Walker’s first time heading a kitchen solo and after time in the kitchens of Annie Smithers, and Castlemaine’s Good Table (RIP) she’s gone with an easy-to-manage pitch.

It starts with focaccia served with a scoop of cheesy cultured butter and maybe a few crisp-shelled leek and gruyere croquettes. The pasta game is probably strongest: plump gnocchi basted in a bright pumpkin sauce that gets chilli heat plus some floral crunch from sage pangrattato. A coarse-cut spaghetti tangles with mild sardines, chilli garlic and sweet currants.

Lengths of octopus tentacle, slow braised in brine with lots of bay leaf then barbecued, could be more tender but they’re served with brilliant crushed purple majesty potatoes the colour of X-ray dye and a caper-lemon dressing that kicks it all with steel-toed boots. Chicken marylands done coq au vin-style are also a little firm, but rich onion-studded gravy and silken potatoes are on the money.

If presentation is rustic, most flavours are true. It’s also hard to go wrong with a wedge of aged ossau-iraty and washed rind brie, or the flavours of a pear tarte tatin infused with bergamot. Harder still when a mini tasting menu is $35 a head and a larger selection is $50.

And even if Lola’s food isn’t a jump-in-your-car draw, that package is something. Castlemaine may have its parochial moments (word has it, someone cut the computer cord at the library to protect the children from screens) but all is peace, choc tops and pumpkin gnocchi here. It’s enough to catch some Castlemania.

THE LOWDOWN
Pro-tip:
Check the schedule for gigs.
Go-to dish: Pumpkin gnocchi and sage pangrattato ($25).

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