One chef. Twelve seats. More courses than you can count. Friday and Saturday night only. Booking months in advance.
This is Ballarat’s most progressive hatted degustation restaurant, Underbar, by chef and owner Derek Boath, fresh from New York’s three Michellin star Per Se.
But before we get into it, let’s get one thing straight. It’s not Underbar. It’s “oon-de-bar”. An adjective. It’s Swedish for delectable, divine, gorgeous, great, lovely, marvelous and wonderful – or at least that’s what their website tells me. This is an important point. Because so much of the Underbar (“oon-de-bar”) experience and its story, is wrapped up in its name. Marvelous, let’s begin.
“Underbar is a chef’s tasting menu. It’s designed by me, inspired by the seasons and surrounds here in Ballarat. The experience itself is a communal table. Everyone sits at the same time and we share the food experiences together,” Derek said.
“We wanted to take the stuffiness, the pretentiousness out of some of the fine dining establishments that are around. We wanted to give people a relaxed atmosphere where they could enjoy really great food, really good wine, know where it comes from, who cooked it, who produced the wine, and have the story be told throughout the night,” he added.
This experience is laid out before you the moment you walk through the door. The long communal table takes centre stage as it leads you through the room and up to a large marble bar. It’s the only thing between you and the kitchen, where Derek prepares and cooks everything himself.
“We want people to be able to come to the bar and really feel a connection with me and my food – the way that I cook,” Derek said. This connection is strengthened throughout the night as Derek comes out to introduce each dish as it’s served. “We have a pre-dinner drink and then serve some snacks, where people use their fingers to eat, which is a lot of fun. We do an amuse (amuse-bouche), five traditional courses, a pre-dessert, as well as some petit fours.”
Produce, where possible, is sourced locally; Sher Wagyu from Ballan supplies world-class wagyu beef, Western Plains Pork, Spring Creek Organics, artisanal cured meats come from Salt Kitchen Charcuterie just up the road, the list goes on. While many of the wines are also from the region, including Mitchell Harris, Atwoods and Latta Vino, just to name a few.
Derek’s connection with the town and its surrounds extends beyond the food. Before opening Underbar as a standalone restaurant, it was a pop-up out of Fika Coffee Brewers, across the road on Doveton Street, next door to Mitchell Harris Wines. Wanting to be sympathetic to Fika’s Swedish brand, the name Underbar was born. The Scandinavian-styled Fika also heavily influenced the décor in Derek’s restaurant, favouring a mid-century modern simplicity with pops of colour provided by local artist Tarli Glover.
However, Derek’s influences stretch far beyond Ballarat. Inspired to cook by his mum, he did his apprenticeship in the Northern Territory before moving to Melbourne. But it’s his time in New York, working at Chef Thomas Keller’s (of The French Laundry fame) three Michelin-starred, Per Se, that he admits provided some of his cooking career’s greatest lessons.
“Underbar is a chef’s tasting menu. It’s designed by me, inspired by the seasons and surrounds here in Ballarat. The experience itself is a communal table. Everyone sits at the same time and we share the food experiences together” – Derek Boath, Underbar
“I worked with the best of the best. Chef Keller and obviously the team there with Eli Kaimeh and Cory Chow and Chef David Breedon as well, who is now chef de cuisine at The French Laundry. I learnt an incredible amount of technical knowledge as well as how to work as a team and how much you can achieve when you really push hard.” Derek said.
“Coming back from New York to Australia, initially to Melbourne and to end up in Ballarat, it was a leap of faith. Coming from such a big and bustling city where there was always something new, something exciting to do, then move to a small country town with a population of about 100,000 people, it was a step into the unknown for my wife and I. Ballarat’s really embraced us, given us tremendous opportunities to spread our wings and to open Underbar, to be able to express ourselves through our restaurant and our cuisine, but also give us the flexibility to have a work-life balance, to own a house, to start a young family and be in charge of our own destiny.” Derek said.
A leap of faith indeed – one that’s paying off for the Boaths and for Ballarat. The restaurant was this year awarded a chefs hat at the Good Food Guide Awards, a real testament to the quality of product Derek has created. And while Underbar might be a million miles away from New York City, the food and the experience is no less exhilarating. With people from all over Victoria fighting for a spot at the table, there’s no signs of things slowing down any time soon. It’s a real sign of the times for Ballarat. It’s exciting. And it tastes good.
Reservations for Underbar are released at 9am on the first of the month for the following month. And you’ll need to be quick if you want to secure a spot.