Brae's swish dining room. Photo: Julian Kingma
The irony is that Dan Hunter will probably end up making more money from the accommodation when it's completed next year than the from $180 prix fixe menu at Brae. Until then he'll have to be content with opening a restaurant that not only deserves bucket-list status, it shaves an hour off the pilgrimage to his previous digs at Dunkeld. Win.
Restaurant twitchers had been placing bets on Hunter leaving the Royal Mail for some time. He was in a good paddock with free artistic rein, but in taking over Sunnybrae, just outside Birregurra in the Otways, he's found a place to replicate the RM spirit. He and his backers have tailored the old homestead with a discerning eye on the long game. The kitchen is to chefs as the Breaking Bad lab was to meth-heads, and the dining room has been renovated with the schmick materials to make it a place of stylish comfort - no small matter when dinner takes upwards of three hours.
Brae is honing, not overhauling, what Hunter does. You can still see his food's genealogy stretching back to Mugaritz, and there's also that Japanese, almost kaiseki approach kicking in along the 12-plus courses. But with a menu cleaving hard to the garden and a wine list with a strong local spine, Brae is firmly in the here and now.
The 'un-dull' parsnip dessert. Photo: Julian Kingma
Things kick off communally and cutlery-free: haute snacks like airy puffs of crunchy beef tendon dusted with tonsil-tickling pepperberry (native ingredients are a big thing here, adding pop and pizzazz wherever they go); pitch-black (squid ink) pretzels where treacle traps pork scratchings; asparagus spears with prawn dust.
Even the sourdough (from the inherited Alan Scott brick oven) is the stuff of revelation, with a caramel crust the thickness of boot leather and a loose, curdy butter.
There's ''calamari and pickles'', a soft curl of confit protein with pickled baby turnips and cucumber, plus grated boiled egg and a daikon, cucumber and fennel juice. The judicious use of lemon myrtle and horseradish add flickers of electricity. A union of the sweetest mussels and fennel, abetted by obulato (a translucent shard of potato starch) has a host of support players including salt cod cream; poached rock lobster harnesses the incredible sweetness of carrot with dried seaweed and prawn salt providing the engine room.
Wallaby tartare. Photo: Julian Kingma
It's disciplined, ascetically obsessive food. The grunt of blush-pink lamb played off against a pithy lemon and soy milk puree, another of broad bean, and the smokiness of grilled baby cos. The zing of sour yosterberries and a sanguine sprinkling of freeze-dried mandarin powder against gamey duck liver parfait and confit gizzards with wilted radicchio and toasted buckwheat. The finger lime cells that pop over the top of braised wagyu short rib with raw and cooked shiitakes, baby kaffir lime leaves and rock samphire.
Not everything is wonderful. There's a flax wafer with wallaby tartare that's dutiful and joyless; likewise, I was fairly immune to the final flourish of a biscuit with the rusty taste of pigs' blood.
But when you push the boat out you can expect a few waves. Eating here is completely un-dull when you've got a crazily unique dessert of fried parsnip skin with an apple and parsnip mousse that hardens your arteries just to look at it, dehydrated and freeze-dried apple and caramel flavoured with apple and chamomile tea.
So much in a restaurant like Brae comes down to the service, and restaurant manager Simon Freeman leads by example in lightening the tone. This is a new-millennium gastro-temple, geared towards diners who don't want to talk sotto voce or listen to interminable monologues.
And therein lies the key to Brae. It's the best of the Royal Mail immersed in Sunnybrae's free spirit, where diners are encouraged to kick back a gear, go off-piste, take a ramble in the garden. There's an old cemetery tucked in the east corner you ought to check out; a memento mori to seize the day. Dan Hunter has. You should too.
The best bit Service. Food. Location.
The worst bit Getting a taxi back to town (some accommodation providers will drop off/pick up)
Go-to dish Parsnip and apple
Note: Prior notice preferred for dietary requirements and vegetarian menu.
- 03 5236 2226
- Cuisine - Contemporary
- Prices - $180 a head
- Features - Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Accepts bookings, Wheelchair access
- Chef(s) - Dan Hunter
- Owners - Dan Hunter, Julianne Bagnato, Howard McCorkell and Damien Newton-Brown
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Author - Larissa Dubecki