Serving Sydney rock oysters, freshly plucked and shucked from the lapping waters of Merimbula Lake less than a stone’s throw from its floor-to-ceiling windows, Valentina Restaurant embodies the Sapphire Coast Oyster Trail with a degustation to showcase the region’s five estuaries.
You’d expect a restaurant with views over one of the figureheads of the Australian oyster heartland to have pretty good seafood, wouldn’t you.
But Valentina in Merimbula takes it a whole lot further than just ‘pretty good’.
On a normal day, you’ll find here the kind of dishes you’d expect from a fine-dining restaurant in a capital city—not a little town that’s a six-hour drive along the coast from both Sydney and Melbourne.
But when Valentina wants to, it can really turn it on.
We were lucky to be here for the inaugural Eau de Terroir special oyster and wine degustation dinner, where the brilliant minds in the kitchen and the wine cellar join to create a meal revelation.
Check out our video from the Eau de Terroir evening here:
The purpose of this five-course meal is to show not only how oysters can go with all kinds of different wine or be served in a number of different ways, but more to show how different they can taste just because of where they live.
Oysters from each of the five estuaries of the Sapphire Coast—Wonboyn, Pambula, Merimbula, Nelson, Wapengo—show how each lake imparts on its oysters specific qualities.
This is just like the concept of terroir, when the same wine variety will taste completely different depending on the soil the grapes grow in. Those in the know call the oyster version of this ‘merroir’.
Eau de Terroir oyster and wine degustation—Valentina Merimbula
First, let me set the scene.
The sun’s just setting, leaving shards of golden light to fleck from the surface of Merimbula Lake, one of the most prestigious Sydney rock oyster habitats in the world.
From the first floor, looking out of this beautiful body of water through its wall-of-glass windows is Valentina. As you walk in, you’re immediately aware of the relaxed yet sophisticated ambience of the venue, and the staff welcome you with genuine smiles.
The tables, although perfectly spaced for intimacy and romance, are tonight ready for the event of the year.
Replete with menus and explanatory notes on the decadent feast you’re about to enjoy, each table is set for the Eau de Terroir degustation.
It’s a simple yet subtle concept: the pairing of wine and oysters.
The run of play is a multitude of dishes; courses with names like Natural, Cold, Warm, Pasta and Sweet give you an idea of what’s coming, but you realise there’s so much more going on as each dish arrives.
To start with though, we’re offered a gin martini or G&T. This might not seem relevant until we learn the gin is North of Eden Distillery’s incredible Oysters Shell Gin. This is a local distillery that makes amazing gins anyway, but the Oyster Shell, which uses actual shell in its distillation, is superb.
First out is the Natural dish. We’re served a plate of two different Sydney rock oysters with lemon and lime wedges. One half of the dozen is from right here at Merimbula Lake. They have a powerful assertive flavour and are quite salty and minerally.
The other half are from Pamubula Lake. You can learn more about Pambula oysters as well as our oyster shucking masterclass here. But these oysters are creamier and sweeter.
On a separate plate, a third type of oyster arrives though. These are the Merimbula Angasi mud oysters and are enormous, though not lacking flavour or texture.
This course is paired with a Muscadet from the Loire Valley in France, the ultimate wine for natural oysters. Its complex buttery, citrusy notes go so well with all the flavours from these three oysters that present mineral, saline, iodine and creamy notes all at once.
Next come a pair of cold and chilled dishes starting with six Merimbula oysters ready-topped with a mix of ingredients—a gin and tonic granita that’s sharp and palate-cleansing, a superb red wine vinegar and shallot mignonette and best of all wasabi mousse and ponzu.
The savoury notes from the ponzu balance so well with the zingy heat of the wasabi.
Our second cold dish is an oyster tartare. Served in a bowl-shaped crunchy wanton, the whole oyster sits under a blanket of finely shopped chives with glowing globes of salmon roe on top.
To go with this course, Valentina serve a clean dry German troken Riesling, whose crisp freshness matches the lightness of the food.
This next round of dishes—four in all—is perhaps the most creative.
First are four house-made vol au vents filled with a blue cheese béchamel and a whole Merimbula oyster.
These cylinders of puff pastry take me right back to my childhood when vol au vents were a ubiquitous party snack. I say bring ‘em back! Absolutely delicious.
Next, served in their shells, are Sydney rock oysters in a rich velvety Champagne beurre blanc topped with caviar—a really opulent dish that speaks to the luxury of eating oysters.
Also in their (enormous) shells are engasi mud oysters cooked in a fragile tempura batter and served on a velvety squid ink sauce. These big engasi oysters are so creamy and rich, they don’t get nearly enough credit or fame.
Finally for this course is an oyster po’boy. I’ve had one of these before at Ironside in San Diego so my benchmark is set pretty high.
Served in a buttery brioche with a sharp caper-forward tartare sauce, the juicy deep-fried oysters create such a range of textures against the pillowy bread. Very impressive.
This course comes with a Pinot Blanc from Alsace in France. It’s a creamy, full-bodied, bold wine—especially for a white and has a lovely warming sensation just like these dishes. Yet it also has enough acidity to cut through the richness.
After all this food, you’d think that the last thing you’d want to eat is a big plate of pasta. But then this comes out.
A perfectly al dente linguini with the smoothest velvety alfredo egg-based sauce and bottaga roe punctuated with tender smoked oysters. It’s a wonderful dish that, although quite rich, is so moreish and balanced, you can’t stop eating it.
Paired with this dish is a big fat Chardonnay from the Mornington Peninsula. It’s a rounded, fruit-forward wine that squares up to the robust flavours and textures of the pasta without taking away from the delicate flavours of the smoked oysters or the sauce. At the same time, it has enough acidity at the end to cut through the richness.
Finally, the dessert comes, though we’re not sure how much more we can eat.
Served on a bed of toasted granola, the quenelle of oyster stout ice cream (I have no idea how they make it) is chocolaty and light yet packed with umami. Next to the ice cream is a creamy smooth zabaglione made with champagne, which adds a light elegant mouth-feel to element.
It’s a stunning dish that captures how versatile oysters can be—if you have skills like this kitchen.
With the dessert is a hazy Pet Nat sparkling wine that cuts right through the sugar and cream. Champagne works well with ice cream desserts anyway, but the Pet Nat, which has more body than the average sparkling.
On the back of this incredible experience, we really want to come back to Valentina on a regular night. We ask the staff what’s good here.
They recommend the burrata and flatbreads, the anchovy toast, scallops with beurre bland and black pepper, spaghetti vongole, wagyu steak, snapper and tuna tartare, and the whipped cod roe antipasto.
Looks like we’ll have to come back a few times. What a shame!