From Drysdale to Queenscliff, the Q Train shows the best of the Bellarine

Not just about food and wine, at their core restaurants are in the business of delivering joy. That’s what the good ones do. You see it on the faces of the couple celebrating an achievement, an anniversary, a rare night out. You feel it from staff who are excited to be part of the experience, who make you at ease, comfortable and welcomed.

And you see it writ in the contented smiles and the laughter that comes easily after a good meal and a couple of glasses of wine.

The Q Train delivers joy. In abundance.

From the wind in the hair while you wave goodbye to the West Gate as the ferry captain pushes the throttle from 5 knots to 15, to the driver taking us from Portarlington harbour to Drysdale station while giving a pride-filled commentary pointing out his favourite spots to eat, to the country-sweet and charming young staff who know their way around the menu, to even catching a cheeky snooze in the sun on the ferry deck on route back to Docklands, this really is a joyous day out.

The Q Train is the labour of love of a couple of local train enthusiasts, who have restored and converted six carriages that once rode the Queensland rails into a “moving restaurant”.
Its inaugural journey departed Drysdale in October and since then has been making the leisurely 3 ½-hour return trip to Queenscliff on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, with the recent addition of some Thursday lunches, where you can add that ferry ride from the city to make it a full day of fun.

But what elevates this offering from one purely pitched at trainspotting gunzels to one with serious eaters in its sights is the singular focus on celebrating the best of the Bellarine.
On the plate, that means making the most of such local produce as Wattle Grove honey, Sage Farm beef and lamb, Barongarook pork and, of course, Portarlington’s famous mussels.

In the glass, that means a cracking hyper-local beer list and a tight but equally exclusive showing of a half dozen whites and reds — Bellarine’s Jack Rabbit and Oakdene in Wallington a couple of the bigger names among the boutique labels.

Chef Greg Egan is turning that produce into six courses of approachable fare with surprising finesse, given the limitations of cooking for 80-odd people in a moving tin can.

The first courses hit soon after departure; a lovely light housemade ricotta strewn with crisp prosciutto is elevated with a judicious drizzle of floral Wattle Grove honey, and though the advertised “poached quail egg” was instead a hard-boiled standard issue, it’s nice little opener.

A generous serve of salted beef was next, the dice of supremely tasty meat and pear mixed with a wasabi mayo that, while lacking any discernible heat and a touch too heavy handed, still made for very good eating.

After a stretch-the-legs pit stop at Suma Park station, a bright Vietnamese salad of green mango, cucumber, fresh coconut and mint is the next course, providing a vibrant bed for a half dozen mid-sized Portarlington mussels that are somewhat overshadowed by the salad that also included ginger, ruby grapefruit, chilli and orange blossom.

While the train stops for us to take in the glorious Swan Bay vista, a less is more approach pays off with the pork.

Apple batons and a simple swipe of pumpkin puree only serve to highlight the Barongarook farm meat; the rich, creamy belly with a crackle-tastic crown and slow-cooked shoulder meat are truly excellent. A judicious drizzle of sticky soy caramel chef Egan learnt in Teage Ezard’s kitchen back then, finishes the pick of the plates.

Lovely Sage Farm lamb comes two ways: a blushing cutlet and cube of braised shoulder to finish the savouries, followed by a delightful sesame-rolled chocolate parfait served with orange blossom honey curd. The coffee, too, is good.

In welcome news for those with dietary or lifestyle requirements, the menu is completely gluten free, while on Friday nights I can definitely see the Club Loco bar in the last carriage living up to its name after dinner and a couple of Q Train espresso martinis.

We dined in one of two handsomely furnished dining carriages (the luggage on racks is a lovely touch) where those six-courses are $99. For an extra $40 a head, you get your own compartment in First Class, plus matching wines. Oh la la.

The “sail, rail and dine” package, which also includes the return ferry from Docklands and transfers, is $149 a head, which I reckon is a bit of a steal for such a beaut day out. There are still spots available for the March 22 departure.

I highly recommend getting aboard, for the Q Train is a joy.

Herald Sun - On the right track

This article was originally published in the Herald Sun Taste Section – March 6th 2018 and was written by Dan Stock