As a special Australia Day public holiday treat, we’re going to go out of town for the day and head to the tiny town of Dunkeld, 260km west of Melbourne.
Why? Because one of Australia’s best country restaurants, and The Age Good Food Guide’s Country Restaurant of the Year in 2009, is located at the Royal Mail Hotel.
The Royal Mail Hotel is a destination restaurant – it blooms like a desert flower in a quiet country town which has one silent main street, nestled in the shadows of Mt Sturgeon and Mt Abrupt. On our visit every second couple was pregnant, so it seems like the kind of place people go for their babymoon (pre-birth getaways for parents-to-be). As we were not pregnant, and in a valiant attempt to save our pennies for eating, we stayed at the highly recommended cosy log cabins of Southern Grampian Cottages which were within walking distance for the restaurant and where, incidentally, I had the best night’s sleep I’ve had in months.
Anyway, back to the reason for our stay in Dunkeld. The restaurant is unpretentious and filled with light thanks to the floor-to-ceiling windows. The walls are adorned with abstracts of Dunkeld’s scenery by John Waller, painted when he was artist in residence at La Trobe University. His art also covers the restaurant menu, which reveals only two choices in the evening – a vegetarian menu ($110) or an omnivore’s menu ($150), both ten courses. We’d booked dinner for 7pm and didn’t leave till 10:30pm, so an evening at the restaurant is not one to be rushed.
The menu is seasonal and can even change from day to day depending on what’s available in the 150 garden beds which grow on the Royal Mail Hotel owner’s estate (prominent QC Allan Myers, a Dunkeld boy made good). Fruit, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers are all harvested every morning by the chefs from the kitchen gardens, while produce is mostly sourced from Lakes Entrance in the east of Victoria with occasional forays into more local produce depending on availability and quality.
While the produce is local, the confident and surprising techniques used in the kitchen definitely indicate Spanish and Asian influences. Executive chef Dan Hunter spent time as a chef, then head chef at Mugaritz, a two Michelin star restaurant just outside of San Sebastian established by Andoni Aduriz, an ex-apprentice at El Bulli. Also it’s really evident that a lot of painstaking care is taken with the presentation – I think a lot of tweezer work is involved!
The first course were little tastes of sardines on crackling toast with a tiny round of shaved radish and an extremely rich cube of pork belly sandwiched by two thin squares of fried bread. You’ll see that they are resting on a tile made of local sandstone and when we glanced outside they seemed a lot of like the brickwork in the courtyard outside.
In other interesting presentation, check out the beaker containing almost cartoonish baby carrots dipped in calamari ink liquid spiced with cardamom.
Each morning the sugar snap peas are podded and individually sorted according to size to make sure that those that make up this dish are the same (for your information, the small rejected peas go into a pasta dish available at the bistro). The pile of peas is held together by an almost imperceptible and tasteless jelly made of kuzu (a real favourite ingredient with the chef) while spiked with spearmint leaves and sharp purple chive flowers. The sashimi resting on a smear of sour milk is not what it seems [spoiler alert] – it’s actually watermelon which has been dehydrated so that it retains the refreshing feel of the fruit, but eliminating the sweetness, slightly granulated texture and crunch you’d expect in watermelon. Very intriguing.
Dan Hunter’s fancy variation of soldiers. The egg yolk is separated from the white, then cooked at 62 degrees to retain the silky texture of the yolk while forming a glistening skin around the whole structure. It rests on deconstructed ‘toast’ – an earthy trail mix of toasted rye, legumes and yeast which also hides a horseradish paste and blanched peeled asparagus. Even though I’m not much of an egg yolk fan, this was one of my favourite dishes of the night.
One large marron cooked sous vide accompanied by a mound of quinoa, prosciutto and sea lettuce – and more kuzu.
This dish of yellowfin tuna was presented with a flourish of viscous (kuzu?) sauce being poured into it. However, for me it was the lowlight of the night. I’ve never really understood the raving about yellowfin tuna and this was a blah piece of fish which I didn’t even bother finishing. In fact, I thought the whole dish was rather bland, with occasional cringing bursts of spring onions and shallots.
Another fancy variation on classics, this time surf and turf! Eel and melting slow-cooked beef tendon, with some potatoes gems and miniature slices of kohl rabi served with a Japanese-style sticky sauce. And identifiable pine-tree like twigs.
RM’s dish of the night and the visual highlight for me. This forest floor landscape comprised an incredibly tender and perfectly seared fillet of lamb from the nearby Wimmera region, a cigar of eggplant in white miso, a sprinkling of pine nuts and crunchy fried capers, all resting on a veneer of salty chlorophyll.
Onto desserts. A restaurant is after my heart when it offers not one, not two but three desserts.
First up, a perfectly caramelised tart tatin sprinkled with chopped almonds and chamomile (a little overwhelmed by the sweetness of the apple) and a little side pair of cherries with edible sugared stems.
An outwardly demure girly dessert which unleashed a barrage of textures and flavours – fresh and dried berries intermingled with black olives, an earthy beetroot sorbet and delicate rose petals.
The most traditional dessert, but still an inspired combination of textures. Pistachio cake, hazelnut gelati, crunchy honeycomb, chocolate and pistachio crumbs and tightly-wound dark chocolate scrolls.
On a final note, the service throughout the night was commendably friendly and professional. The wait staff were happy to answer all my questions and general investigative prodding!
I think RM put it best as we paid the $300+ bill “The Royal Mail Hotel was really expensive, but that’s not what I’ll be remembering when I leave.” I think that’s the best accolade a restaurant would ask for.
- Royal Mail Hotel, 98 Parker Street Glenelg Highway, Dunkeld +61 3 5577 2241