Mat Picone, proprietor of Mansfield Coffee Merchant, has a solid hospitality background matched with a sense of creative business flair. He’s done his time working in both Melbourne cafés and coffee roasters like North Melbourne’s DiBella Coffee, plus has worked a string of winter seasons (2004-2009) at Mount Buller’s illustrious Chalet restaurant in Victoria’s high country, which is known for its contemporary dining and extensive list of 250 wines.
It was through the eyes of becoming a (part time) local and searching for a decent locally roasted morning’s cup of coffee that he began to see the potential for a new, self-made business venture producing specialty blends of coffee served with excellence. In 2014, he installed a modest 5kg coffee roaster in a store front window on Highett Street, Mansfield, and Mansfield Coffee Merchant was born. Its coffee and patronage was an instant hit.
Jump ahead to 2019 and a lot of growth and positive change has occurred. Much of the coffee now roasted by team of roasting professionals in a new facility on Mount Buller Road and is distributed to a strong list of local clients plus cafés and restaurants as far west as Portland, Victoria, and as far north as Yamba, NSW. And the original Highett Street venue has now evolved into one of the region’s most respected casual eateries, under the keen focus of Canadian chef Cody Louis. We begin our evening with a bowl of his flavoursome and tender Mount Zero olives house-marinated in lemon myrtle and kaffir lime leaf, while an epic mineral/flinty Craggy Range (NZ) Te Muna Road 2018 Sauvignon Blanc is poured alongside. It’s a small beginning, yet makes a big impact.
Tonight’s crowd arrives early and ready for action, filling the venue’s open plan space with an energised mood. A group of elegantly dressed young ladies share cocktails at the bar tables while couples, families and larger groups come together for conversation, breaking bread and quaffing fine wines, seated at tables crafted in local mountain ash and spotted gum hardwoods. Next to land on our table is a house selection of charcuterie, pickles and mustard – a welcoming sight for this slightly weary traveller. The plate comprises a killer lineup: a creamy textured venison salami packs a punch with its warming kick of chilli, followed by slices of softly sweet-tasting pork capicola – similar in texture to a top quality jamón, yet with a more subtle flavour; and then the local and very fabulous Strathbogie Ranges-produced Sevens Creek Wagyu bresaola – deep in colour, softly spiced and utterly, utterly delicious. Sides of house made pickles: cucumber, onion and zucchini are smeared with gentle warming spices. An additional serve of seeded mustard is the perfect accompaniment to the meats spread across the house-baked sourdough bread, made with Woodstock (NSW) stoneground flour. It’s an extremely decent spread. The bread, like the in-house cultured butter, is one of a long list of house specialities, confirming the venue’s intention to deliver a quality dining experience within each and every item that’s delivered to your table.
Drink offerings are well thought out with a cocktail menu featuring a range of classics – including, of course, a cracker coffee martini – but also a range of more complex aromatic offerings. In terms of hard-to-find local and fine Australian wines, the list is many and varied, and put together with skill. Some of Mat’s favourites include the bone-dry Provence, French-style Woodcutter’s Rosé by Torbreck Vintners (SA); the citrus and stone-scented Red Claw Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay by Yabby Lake; and the local and high-James Halliday-point scoring Mount Terrible Pinot Noir from the nearby hamlet of Jamieson.
We continue our tasting with a Mitchell 2016 Watervale (Clare Valley) Riesling, which presents well with its gorgeous nose of cumquats and lime, The palate is full flavoured, showing wonderful complexity and development for its age, and it works perfectly with the next share plate: piquillo peppers stuffed with Tolpuddle goat’s curd (Tarrawingee, Victoria). These are gently warmed and dressed with saltbush, parsley oil and almonds, accomplishing a textural experience that’s uniquely Australian and richly decedent in both flavour and texture.
Main share plates of whole market fish are somewhat of a signature at Mansfield Coffee Merchant, and are prepared using a range of premium spices, fresh herbs and other locally grown fragrant accompaniments. Our saltbush-crusted, oven roasted snapper proves a fine example, featuring a Long Lane (Mansfield) caper butter that’s delicate and fantastically musk flavoured – a rare taste sensation that’s simply not found in other imported caper products. The fish is as expected, cooked to perfection, moist and delicate. With the aroma and umami-rich taste of the skin combining with the silky white flesh, it makes for some seriously good eating. It’s simply one of the best fish dishes we’ve tasted in a very long time. Our waiter pours the Jamieson Mount Terrible Pinot Noir at Mat’s suggestion. It’s a good choice as it’s a fuller bodied, more ‘meaty’ style pinot, with a backbone of mushroom and earthy characteristics that deepen out its chocolate-cherry front palate flavours. This adds a complex edge and further teases out the saltbush aromatic notes. I could see this wine also working well with the charcoal grilled kangaroo loin and Davidson plum sauce, as this well presented dish combines robust but also lighter, more aromatic elements.
Vegetables, salad greens and herbs arrive to Mansfield Coffee Merchant via local grower Simone Boyd. Her local business Heirloom Naturally focuses on growing heirloom varietals utilising organic principles: this entails fertilising with natural organic matter, no soil tilling and always hand harvesting the consequently nutrient rich products. It’s not often the vegan or vegetarian is provided with such a gourmet selection as offered here; roasted cauliflower steak with macadamia cream, root vegetables with lemon myrtle and confit broken potato with garlic aoli make this venue something truly special.
Dessert choices are often limited to one or two key lighter-styled offerings, together with a selection of cheeses served with house made sourdough crisps. A dessert might include a light and delicious rhubarb clafoutis with yoghurt cream, or fresh strawberries in their own syrup with rice foam, wattle seed, rice cracker and green tea ice cream – one flavour combination that I can confirm is happily etched in my memory. After dinner coffee selections are of course on point and brilliant. Recalling the stern wit and sharp performance of Matthew Broderick in the cult classic movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – the Bueller’s Blend espresso is immediately ordered. It’s a slightly darker roasted blend compared to others: New Kid on the Block is a mild and smooth blend with a citrus finish, and House Party Blend – a Colombian-based blend – offers deep flavours combined with toffee caramels.
At a time when hospitality owners are required to expand offerings in order to remain relevant and profitable in the marketplace, Mansfield Coffee Merchant has managed to deliver a dinner service to rival some of Melbourne’s best. No longer a mere coffee roaster and café, it has firmly established itself as a regional food icon that’s likely to remain a competitive forerunner in Victoria’s High Country.
MANSFIELD COFFEE MERCHANT
23 Highett St, Mansfield, Victoria
Tel 03 5779 1703