It's in the bank
Sandy Guy visits an old bank that's become an upmarket hotel and wine bar.
It's unlikely this Bank of NSW, built in 1862, has ever had anything like the gourmet cuisine being served these days in its venerable halls, which sit amid the architectural splendour of Ballarat's Lydiard Street, the city's best-preserved thoroughfare.
Opened last month, the Lydiard Wine Bar is a welcome newcomer (some say a revolution) to Ballarat's dining scene thanks to the talents of chef Damien Jones, back in his home town after almost two decades polishing his culinary skills at London's Bibendum under Simon Hopkinson, David Thompson's Michelin-hatted Nahm and Melbourne fine diners Circa, the Prince, Mrs Jones and Vin Cellar.
Jones serves a selection of outstanding dishes at his sophisticated yet laid-back wine bar, which has been transformed from an austere warren of offices into a bright, roomy space featuring leather armchairs, small tables, huge arched windows, Venetian mirrors and a baby grand piano.
Classically French trained and an enthusiast of Thai cuisine, Jones' "shared food" menu - dishes are taste-size yet generous - features locally sourced produce including Mount Zero olives, wonderfully flavoursome Skipton smoked eel and creamy Meredith cheese.
Better still, dining at the Lydiard Wine Bar won't break the bank: home-made potato and rosemary bread with basil-infused olive oil is $2.50; sensational crisp prawn and shiitake mushroom dumplings $9; ultra-tender slow-roasted veal $14; Thai-inspired caramelised salmon, green mango, chilli and mint $16; velvety gnocchi with taleggio cheese and crisp sage $12.
Lovers of boutique beer will appreciate the bar's ales - James Squire, Boag's and Hahn Premium are on tap - and the wine list features some regional stars such as Ballarat's Rebellion and Beaufort's Michael Unwin labels.
While the old Bank of NSW has retained its gracious facade, the building's interiors - which include the 13 hotel rooms of the new Quality Inn Heritage on Lydiard - are a mixture of heritage features combined with a contemporary makeover.
Nowhere is this amalgamation more manifest than the hotel's lobby, which features a lovely wooden staircase trodden by generations of bankers. "Please tell me those slabs of smoke-coloured glass bolted to the staircase aren't a design feature?" I ask the receptionist. They're not, I am told. The staircase has instead been rendered unsightly thanks to 21st-century occupational health and safety requirements; apparently, the handrails weren't high enough, necessitating the addition of a several centimetres of glass.
Our room on the first floor faces Lydiard Street, directly over the road from Ballarat's magnificent Mining Exchange. Huge picture windows are hung with a cloud of billowing bronze-coloured fabric and are double glazed - mandatory here, as the nightclub at the George Hotel two doors down (where Jones began his epicurean journey in the kitchens 18 years ago) thumps into the wee small hours, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights.
The room is a juxtaposition of old and new: the walls are adorned with several large mirrors, a feature wall of old-world wallpaper in black and gold tones and reproduction antique-style furniture. There's a big plasma television, a gas heater, a modern stone mantelpiece, air-conditioning, a glitzy chandelier and a comfortable king-size bed swathed in luxurious linens.
The bathroom is sited in a windowless cubicle that divides the room from the doorway to the bed. Fashioned from wood with a square white ceiling, the bathroom reminds me of a claustrophobic little caravan that has been parked in the room as a temporary measure. High above the roof of the bathroom is a magnificent pressed-tin ceiling, sadly almost completely obscured by the bathroom's roof.
While our room has tea and coffee-making facilities, there's no fresh coffee (even for sale) or plunger, and no decaf on offer for a late-night brew.
Instead, there are two sachets of Nescafe and four tiny containers of UHT milk. We are left deciding whether to indulge in a late-night cuppa or save our two sachets until the morning. This level of thriftiness doesn't wash well with the hotel's (self-evaluated) 41/2-star rating; I'm hoping it is a housekeeping error.
A short stroll from Ballarat's grand railway station - a leisurely one-hour, 20-minute journey from Melbourne's Southern Cross Station - the hotel also features a room with access for the disabled, spa and small plunge pool, compact gym, sun deck and undercover parking.
Where: 15 Lydiard Street North, Ballarat. How much Standard room $210 a couple a night ; standard room with cooked breakfast $259, and executive spa suite, including cooked breakfast, $309.
Where to eat: The wine bar is open for dining from 5.30pm to 10pm Tuesday to Saturday (but open for drinks from 4pm until late).
Bookings 1300 668 128; see www.choicehotels.com.au.
Sandy Guy stayed courtesy of Quality Inn Heritage on Lydiard.