Published on 4 May 2022
Let’s get this out of the way straight off the bat: don’t worry, Underbar isn’t getting bigger. If the headline about the tiny fine-diner moving to new digs had you concerned that the 16-seater was throwing away its specialness by throwing things open to 30 or 50 or a hundred punters at a time, rest easy. The space is bigger but – get this – the new place has even fewer seats, and is moving from 16 to 14 diners per service.
Not that it would really put a dent in the appeal that much. As novel as the whole very-small-restaurant thing is, Underbar’s real drawcard is Derek Boath’s good taste and mad ninja kitchen skills. Now you’ll get to enjoy those things (or his good taste, at any rate) at not one but two great new Ballarat venues. Underbar mark II, and a new wine bar called Pencilmark Wine Room that’s going into the original Underbar site.
“We’re just being selfish, really,” says chef and owner Derek Boath, with refreshing candour. “When the chance to move came up, that opened up the spot where Underbar started, which is a great space in a very central location, so we thought, let’s open the kind of wine bar we’d like to go to for a drink on our days off. Something fun and interesting, and something different for Ballarat.”
Pencilmark is the result. Opening in June, it’ll hold 20 guests for wine and snacks, and do retail as well. There’ll be 15 or 20 wines on pour by the glass and 100 bottles on the shelves. One thing it won’t be is rustic. Boath says that he and manager Anthony Schuurs are gunning for a more urban, street look and feel. Wines from producers around Victoria (Latta, Attwoods, Momento Mori and Eastern Peake among them) will be complemented by bottles from other Australians like Tom Shobbrook, Jauma and Dr Edge, and minimal-intervention wines from further afield via importers such as Melbourne’s Halle Aux Vins, Anonymous and Larkin. “We’re all about wines made by husband-and-wife duos, or a couple of brothers, small producers, and often things where we you can only get a dozen bottles,” says Boath. “You drink it with us today, it’s gone tomorrow and we pour you something else good next time.”
And the snacks? A tight edit that nonetheless spans the local and the global with ease. Mick Nunn’s superb Salt Kitchen charcuterie will star, alongside char-grilled seafood canned in Spain by celebrated chef Abel Álvarez under his Conservas Braseadas Güeyumar label, which makes its Australian debut at Pencilmark. “It’s a pretty simple food offering, Boath says, “just about getting the best products and letting them shine.”
Speaking of shiny things, the new setting for Underbar sounds very promising. It closes mid-May and when it reopens in the spring, its new home will be at Vera, the new Sturt Street property from boutique regional accommodation specialists set in a 150-year-old former doctor’s residence and practice.
While the number of seats isn’t going up, Boath says the bigger new space is a chance to raise the restaurant’s sights. “We see it as an opportunity to spread our wings and do things for the guests that we can’t do now.” In addition to stepping up the tasting menus that have made Underbar such a hot ticket for destination diners, Boath will also assume responsibility for the seven-suite hotel’s breakfasts. Not that he’s going to town on bacon and eggs. “No, there’s plenty of places in Ballarat that do that well already, so we’re going to put together a really nice Continental breakfast. Expect local pastries, jams made by Boath, fresh juices, and seasonal filter coffee blended to order with Matthew Freeman from Johnny Alloo and Fika Coffee Brewers. With Boath looking after the mini-bar selection, too, there’ll be plenty to look forward to there as well. “It’ll be very Ballarat.”
By Pat Nourse
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