The improbable location – a cosy bungalow amid fast-food outlets and garish shopfronts – adds to the magic chef Lewis Prince manages to weave here. He delivers enlightened food to entranced locals and astonished travellers alike. Order four tastes of the sea, be diverted with a shot glass of corn veloute while your entree takes shape, and you may suspect you have stumbled into somewhere special.
Your ‘tastes’ will confirm these suspicions: a nugget of cured ocean trout with finger lime cells, a prawn dumpling fired with XO sauce, a tempura scallop with candied chilli, and Laksa laced with blue swimmer fragments.. Lamb rump is no less extraordinary: cooked to tender perfection, it is accompanied by crispy finished rib meat, tempura polenta chips, a goats cheese salad and a sumac foam.
Yep. Desserts, also, indicate a confident chef at the top of his game: try passionfruit curd with toasted meringue, poached rhubarb, red velvet sponge and custardy vanilla spheres. Hang on: where are we again?
A rolling hubcap away from the tyre shop across the road, Neilsons is a rose amid the thorny backdrop of the commercial strip. Step inside the demure California bungalow and be transported to a warm Victorian-style dining room.
Chef Lewis Prince conjures up sensational starters like the succulent Harissa-marinated blackened Brandy Creek Quail with rhubarb, shiso salad and crunchy tempura battered XO nori roll. Similarly, the Noojee ocean trout tartare with zesty gazpacho consommé arrives in a showstopping glass bell jar, temporarily obscured with a white veil of apple-wood smoke.
Without missing a beat, mains – such as yellow duck leg curry with coconut rice and Kataifi-wrapped and fried poached egg – deliver the goods, supported by outstanding desserts, like the Dargo Walnut and apple meringue pie, with Calvados fig mousse and a nostalgic toffee apple sorbet. ‘The banana textures’, featuring Prince’s signature banana spring rolls with chocolate ganache, vanishes swiftly.
What would Gippsland be without Neilsons? Young chef Lewis Prince’s restaurant is one of the regions best. His innovative food aims high, often incorporating seemingly disparate and fancy ingredients. Take Neilsons signature dish: braised wagyu ox cheek coated in a rich black vinegar and tamarind glaze, toppped with smoked yogurt and served with mash and a cucumber salad sprinkled with dukkah.
It could be over-the-top, but instead it’s beautifully cooked and plated, harmonious, and so satisfying. More mainstream is the Asian-influenced entree of grilled scallops, fragrant and tangy with ginger and black-bean paste. For dessert, don’t expect your panna cotta to be predictable or pedestrian; it’ll be loaded with flavour and interest, perhaps infused with kaffir lime and served with blood-orange sorbet, candied pistachios, a mound of Persian fairy floss and, for a bit of whimsy, a spoon of pop rocks – they resemble sugar crystals that crackle and fizz on your tongue.
Best of all? The sound of contented diners in the charming Califonian bungalow that houses this uncluttered, smart and welcoming restaurant.
A delicate amuse-gueule – Peking-duck roll served with cucumber oil – is a sure sign that young owner-chef Lewis Prince still heads the kitchen with flair. It’s an impression quickly reinforced when thick slices of his potato and mixed-grain sourdough loaf are seamlessly presented with house-made dukkah and olive oil. Prince’s rich braised wagyu ox cheek remains his signature dish but lighter Asian-influenced offerings pepper the menu.
‘Four tastes of the Sea’ is a delighful entree featuring ocean trout sashimi, tempura oyster, Sichuan-crusted squid and scallop tataki. Delicate and artfully plated, each ‘taste’ bursts with flavour. A lightly grilled fillet of swordfish, served with coconut rice, wakame and red pepper salad, topped with Sichuan peppered prawns is a treat worth watching for on the specials menu.
For a sweet finish it’s hard to pass the finely balanced mix of turkish delight icecream, moscato jelly and broken meringue, served with poached rhubarb and sherbet foam. Although there are three seperate dining rooms, the hubbub from big tables can be quite intrusive, but this is more than offset by service that’s genuinely friendly, polished and welcoming.
The once eponymous Neilsons is no longer quite that: founder and erstwhile maitre d’ Brad Neilson has moved on. But long serving chef Lewis Prince still heads the kitchen and is indeed a co-owner with Rebecca Prince, the savvy new face out the front. The trade mark stylish decor and table trappings remain unchanged and the adventerous menu maintains a standard rarely found in Gippsland.
A great way to experience Neilsons is Prince’s eight course degustation dinner but it demands both time and appetite. For those daunted by that proscpect, there is still much from which to choose. House made dukkah and potato and herb bread arrive with the menus and are soon followed by a delightful amuse-gueule of goats cheese souffle.
Follow with ‘something light’ likle the signature dish of Gippsland rabbit, blue cheese and hazelnut Tortellini served with asparagus and verjuice butter sauce. ‘Larger plate’ offerings include poached wagyu ox cheek in a hot sweet and sour red curry with pickled cucumber, or maybe honey roasted duck with a rice omelette roll and sticky peanut salad.
For a ‘something sweet’ finish, try roasted pears with a star anise and cinnamon glaze served with vanilla double cream.
An outwardly modest restaurant housed in a refurbished cottage, chic Neilsons is anything but modest once you pass through its portal. Black ceilings, chandeliers and crimson walls hung with art photographs match the warmth of the charming greeting from maitre d’ Brad Neilson. And the placement of candelit tables in several low-lit rooms creates a sense of intimacy enhanced by comfortable seating, fine napery and crystal glassware.
Chilled water, house-baked sourdough and an amuse-gueule of tempura scallop all combine to set the stage for a dining experience rarely equalled in Gippsland. For the adventurous there’s an eight course degustation menu, but a succulent alternative is the chef’s specialities: caramelised ox cheek poached in black vinegar for 36 hours, or similarly slow-braised salted lamb neck with caramelised sweetbreads and date puree.
Line-caught, whole-baked snapper might be the fish of the day, and a local favourite is crab and scallop risotto with coconut cream, kaffir lime and mango. ‘Something Sweet’ rounds off the menu, perhaps cardamom and orange crème caramel with a crisp pistachio wafer.
Set inside a bright Californian bungalow, you could hardly be blamed for mistaking this restaurant for grandma’s cottage. A white picket fence and thick green foliage surround the outside, while displays of paintings and photographs inside showcase the work of local artists.
The lunchtime menu offers a modest selection of seafood meals such as salt and pepper squid, freshly shucked oysters, a salmon omelette and even a smoked salmon baguette – although salads, pastas, risotti and burgers are also available. For dinner, the aged Gippsland beef is a standout, served with a kipfler potato and horseradish tart, roasted baby tomatoes and a shiraz sauce.
A good selection of wines and some home-style desserts – including a warm chocolate and almond pudding – complete the charm of this snug eatery.
Prince of a deal
One of the few decent restaurants east of Dandenong – Neilsons in Traralgon – is changing hands, though that is not necessarily cause for alarm.
Owners Brad Neilson and Damien Gannon – who are moving to Melbourne – are selling to their head chef, the wonderfully named Lewis Prince.
He tells us he plans to keep things “pretty much as they are”.