Customs House Geelong is the first venue I’m writing about for The City Lane, and it’s fitting given that it was one of the first I visited in Geelong, a few years before I made a more permanent move here. At some point over the course of a long weekend visiting friends and family, my heart was won over and I found myself envisioning a life here. Delicious cocktails with good friends in an elegant setting, with views of the bay, certainly held some sway.
The Geelong Customs House, a heritage listed building is the home of Customs House Restaurant and Wine Bar. It is one of the oldest buildings in Geelong, and is situated on the Geelong foreshore, within an attractive public space, facing Corio Bay. Now a popular tourist attraction, Geelong waterfront was once the location of Geelong’s wool shipping port, which at the height of its activity rivalled Melbourne as the main port in the colony. Some historians have argued that if not for a bothersome sand bar and inadequate natural and man made channels, Geelong might have been Victoria’s principal port, especially given its near equal distance as Melbourne, to Ballarat during the Gold Rush Years.
The Colonial Georgian style building built in 1855-56 of freestone and bluestone is now a rarity as many original public buildings of this style in Victoria have since been demolished. It was the perfect venue to get away from the blustery winter weather, and to catch up with a good friend, when I visited recently for dinner, accepting an invite from Customs House to The City Lane to sample their menu.
Upon walking inside, I noticed that the interior had not changed since I last visited – the restaurant is elegant but comfortable. The venue wasn’t crowded but, for a mid-week sitting, I was surprised by how busy it was. As well as other diners there were quite a few couples meeting up for a casual drink at the well stocked, attractive bar, which contains an extensive selection of wines from small, family owned wineries around Australia, as well as the usual range of spirits and beers.
The food menu is fairly typical of the Italian Family Style the owners are aiming for. The aim is to use fresh, local produce to create authentic dishes that highlight the quality ingredients. My guest was a vegetarian and while the menu isn’t really geared towards vegetarians, the staff were more than happy to accommodate her.
I’d heard unhappy reports about the service in the past from friends and family, but on the occasion I visited I found service to be reasonable. We did wait quite a while for each course, but given the cosiness of the venue we didn’t mind. In fact it was actually felt quite refreshing to not be rushed through a meal by wait staff.
We started our meal with the arancini, stuffed with tallegio, and served with a spicy Napoli sauce. The arancini balls were not as seasoned as we’d normally like however the Napoli sauce was a good example of a spicy tomato based sauce which helped to provide some much needed flavour to the balls.
Roasted Field Mushrooms ($16.50)
For my vegetarian companion, we ordered the roasted field mushrooms, which my friend said were delicious.
Gnocchi With Parmesan Cream, Pork & Fennel Sausage & Mushroom Sauce ($34.00)
Our first main was the house-made gnocchi served with parmesan cream, pork & fennel sausage & mushroom sauce. As with the arancini, the sauce was the highlight of this dish, and was tasty even with the pork and fennel sausage omitted. The gnocchi itself was unfortunately a little stodgy.
Marinated Lamb Rump With Vignarola Sauce ($36.00)
The marinated lamb rump served with vignarola sauce (onion, pancetta, peas, artichoke and parsley) was a perfect choice as a comfort dish in the winter, although the flavours were a little underwhelming. It wasn’t bad, but it lacked that “wow” factor.
Crème Brulee ($16.50)
After generous sized portions of our earlier dishes, we decided to share a desert, the classic crème brulee. This is one of my favourite desserts, and the Customs House version didn’t disappoint, delivering exactly what one would expect from a crème brulee – a rich custard base with hard caramel to provide a textural contrast to the custard. Perfect to enjoy with a sneaky glass of Topaque of course!
At the end of our meal, we had mixed feelings about our experience at Customs House. We left feeling warm, full and content, and had a very lovely evening. The service was friendly, the building full of atmosphere and the food acceptable. We felt however, that the food could have been so much more. It was obvious that the produce used was of high quality, and that the owners care about supporting local producers. When it came to the execution though, there were no dishes that stood out as really highlighting the produce and the Italian flavours that form the backbone of the restaurant.
Did we eat anything bad? No, but did we eat anything great? No again. All of the fundamentals for Customs House to be one of Geelong’s top restaurants are in place and we think that with a refocusing on what makes Italian food great – simple technique and allowing the quality produce to shine, it could yet reach that level.
59 Brougham Street
Mon – Fri: 9:00am to 11:00pm
Sat – Sun: 8:00am to 12:00pm