The mercury has topped 40 degrees as we drive north-east towards the coast. The sparse, burnt landscapes stretching kilometres into the distance are a stark reminder of the devastating fires that wrought havoc on Australia’s rural communities just 12 months ago.
The sheer scale of the tragedy is hard to comprehend. As we navigate the winding roads towards Nowra, it feels as if we’ve landed on an endless, eery moonscape.
Our destination, in the heart of the Shoalhaven region on the NSW south coast, 2.5 hours from Canberra, could not be more of a contrast. Set in lush gardens backing on to a golf course, with airy, light-flooded interiors reminiscent of a very rich friend’s very chic beach house, The Growers represents something of an oasis after emerging from this desert landscape.
The sprawling eatery and bar, which opened last month, is a celebration of local farmers, fishers, winemakers and brewers. Expansive lawns feature herb and vegetable planter boxes and a kids’ play area alongside a fire pit and compact smokehouse. During our visit, the latter is getting its finishing touches before being brought into service to dole out buckets of prawns, tacos, empanadas and more, as well as breakfast dishes for those who can’t wait for lunch.
A couple of gazebos add shade for groups who want to be far(ish) from the madding crowds, while an outdoor terrace lined with tables offers a front-row seat to all the outdoor action.
Inside the restaurant is equally beguiling (with the aircon cranked up on this hot-as-Hades day it’s a fair few degrees cooler than outdoors, despite the presence of a large wood-fired pizza oven in the open-plan kitchen).
We perch on stools at one of the high tables and check out the menu which, unusually, is accessed online by scanning a bar code on the table. This minimal-contact, digital format could well become more prevalent among hospitality providers seeking to minimise the risk of COVID-19, and it’s a novel way to order.
We scroll through starters, mains, pizzas, sides and desserts, clicking to find out a bit more about each dish, before settling on our choices: a couple of Greenwell Point Sydney Rock Oysters with hay-smoked apple and cucumber mignonette each, followed by a shared plate of crispy squid and whitebait fritto misto with warrigal greens, rocket and pepperberry aioli.
Mains are garlic prawn and clam linguini for me and a chargrilled eye fillet with rosemary hasselback potatoes with chimichurri and a garden salad for my husband. Pick of the bunch is the squid and whitebait dish. The whitebait, in particular, is fantastic.
My prawn linguini needs a bit of seasoning and a squeeze of lemon but the prawns are plump and juicy. The steak likewise needs a bit more of the chimichurri sauce but as teething problems go, these are minor quibbles, particularly as The Growers opened just days before our visit and catered for 700 in its first weekend. No mean feat.
Created by Tully Heard Consulting, the team behind Sydney’s popular farm-focused Acre eateries in Camperdown and Artarmon (with another in Victoria’s Burwood), The Growers has an ethos of local and sustainable eating.
At Acre Camperdown, a stone’s throw from my old Sydney home, an unused bowling club was converted into a community farming initiative with terraces, decks, kids’ play areas and an onsite farm that produces a plethora of produce for its Italian-themed restaurant.
While it doesn’t have the extensive onsite plantations of its Sydney sibling, The Growers in Shoalhaven is drawing on the diverse bounty that surrounds it, with a ‘go-to’ map of local producers who supply the restaurant with everything from dairy, eggs and cheese, to olives, wine, meat, fruit and veg, seafood, honey, and even gin and coffee beans.
American-born Patrick Haney, previously head chef at Sydney’s Cruise Bar, works directly with producers to source the key ingredients for his menus – including oysters from Greenwell Point just down the road.
Wherever he’s getting his avocados from, he needs to maintain the relationship. It’s sheer curiosity that prompts me to order the chocolate mousse – an entirely vegan concoction made from avocado and served with raspberries. It’s a revelation – so rich and chocolatey that had I not been told it lacked the usual artery-busting quantities of cream I’d never have guessed.
Just 20 minutes from Jervis Bay, The Growers will be a boon for holidaymakers who can now plan for a chic but casual long lunch or a big night out while enjoying a break on the coast.
But it’s the locals who are the real winners. This new meeting, drinking and dining spot, with its spirit of regeneration and sense of place, has an air of excitement about it just days after opening.
Familiar faces greet each other warmly, the family next to us has popped in for a pizza, and a smattering of couples and groups are soaking up the sun with beers and burgers outside (quinoa crusted chermoula cauliflower rather than your bog standard beef patty, if you don’t mind).
The opening of The Growers is clearly a bright spot at the end of one of the most challenging years ever for this regional community, and the producers who play a pivotal role in its existence. And you can’t hope for better than that.
The Growers is located at 131 Greenwall Point Road, Worrigee, NSW. The indoor kitchen is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11:00 am to late, with a farm-to-plate casual menu and woodfired pizzas, plus the outdoor smokehouse, open from 11:00 am to 2:30 pm on Saturdays and Sundays.