January 7-10, 2021
Interior of the Northern Arts Hotel
We popped our bikes on the train and took a long weekend in Castlemaine early in the new year. We've previously done little more than pass through on the way to other places, and it was great to get to know this town better. We walked and cycled, browsed op shops and book shops, visited the art museum and took in some live music at a pub. Our hotel room didn't have kitchen facilities, so we also made the most of Castlemaine's restaurants and cafes. Here's a quick tour through the ones we most want to recommend.
First, I actually want to mention the Gold Exchange Cafe in nearby Maldon. We set aside Friday to cycle the rail trail running from Castlemaine, through old Muckleford station to Maldon. We picked the Gold Exchange for second breakfast, almost at random from the three or four cafes on the main street. The menu is mostly the simple stuff you'd expect from a country cafe - eggs on toast, build-your-own-sandwich, and a display case of stout cakes - but we also noticed a vegan lasagne, and I pounced upon the iced chai. The pancakes were cheap ($9.50) and excellent, and the one staff member was everything to everyone - taking orders and payments, making coffees and cooking meals, ensuring we all felt welcome.
After our cycle to Maldon and the two breakfasts that fuelled it, we still needed lunch. Super Hero Banh Mi to the rescue! Their vegan option ($10) is stuffed with especially good sticky tofu and a bonus sprinkling of peanuts. We sprayed crusty rolls and pickled carrot shreds all over the hotel balcony.
Castlemaine's former Woollen Mill is a now a space for local businesses; mostly foods, beverages, arts and crafts with a huge vintage bazaar at its heart. Many were taking a summer holiday but Icecream Social was open and we made sure to support them daily. They rotate their flavours regularly - the apricot cheesecake (pictured left) and ricotta-orange-chocolate (pictured right, $5 each) were favourites across the ones we tried, and I missed my chance to try the tiramisu before it was replaced by pavlova, which had a lovely compensatory passionfruit swirl. We also overlooked their offer of split scoops, i.e. getting smaller scoops of two flavours for the price of one regular scoop. These guys also have an outlet closer to home, in Thornbury.
Our icecream mission also led us past the Shedshaker Taproom, and we noticed that their pizzas looked alright. Indeed, they're around $15 apiece, the perfect size for one, and the veg*n options are good! We split the funghi (garlic, parsley, mozzarella, three kinds of mushrooms, thyme and stracciatella) and the patate (garlic, caramelised onion, mozzarella, goat cheese, potato) and couldn't even think about dessert afterwards (luckily we'd already ticked Icecream Social off earlier in the day). We also noticed two vegan pizza options, one including a non-dairy mozzarella.
We made the most of both the menu and the live music at The Bridge Hotel. Veg*n options were abundant and well-labelled, from a Lebanese pearl couscous salad to mac'n'cheese croquettes ($16, pictured above left). Portions were enormous - I could have stuck with the 'small share plate' of tempura broccolini ($16, pictured above right) and called it dinner.
Phamily Kitchen was a surprise treat! Rather than a fixed menu of familiar Vietnamese dishes, they offer seasonally shifting plates with lovely flourishes. We ate most of the vegan options on offer: bắp ngọt chiên/corn croquettes ($9.50, pictured above), equally stunning bánh khọt/mini coconut pancakes filled with pearl mushrooms ($10.50), đậu hũ rang muoi/peanut-dressed fried tofu and eggplant atop a huge salad ($24). It was all so good I couldn't leave without trying (a non-vegan) dessert, so we split the kem sữa chiên/custard fritters ($9.50) with diced mango and salted coconut cream, and didn't leave a crumb on the plate.
We bookended our trip with food from Johnny Baker's Drive-In. At the moment, it's more like Johnny Baker's Queue At 1.5 Metre Intervals, Only Three Masked Customers In At A Time; a good system under the circumstances. We picked up some alright pasties and veg rolls for lunch when we first rolled into town, then choose some pastries for breakfast on our way out of town. My spinach and cheese croissant (~$5, pictured left) was still warm from the oven, and ranks among the best savoury pastries I've ever eaten! We saved the silky-smooth salted caramel and chocolate tart ($7, pictured right) for the train, stretching our Castlemaine fun just a few moments longer.