Go-to dish: Scallops, pork belly, duck egg. Photo: Eddie Jim
There were shades of Monty Python's Black Knight in June when chef Dan Hunter announced his departure from the Royal Mail and management went into a lather of damage control. ''Not really a big deal'' was one of the most memorable quotes from Dunkeld HQ. The follow-up - ''a slight blow, but not one that we are too stressed about'' - caused fits of laughter across the land.
Right-oh. Business as usual, then.
The current edition of The Age Good Food Guide left the hotel, hitherto Victoria's only regional restaurant with three hats, unscored, the chef ''to be announced''.
Making an impact: Chef Robin Wickens. Photo: Eddie Jim
And then came the news that Robin Wickens had been tempted out of the quiet life making pies in Apollo Bay to play with the big boys again.
The Brit-pack chef at his Fitzroy restaurant Interlude was the molecular movement's most strident local champion, but when that went belly up in 2008, his food at the Deanery the next year reined in the avant-garde instincts for something far more grounded and nature-based. If the sea change put his philosophical shift on ice for three years, the tree change, along with the stupendous botanical wonders of the Royal Mail's acre of kitchen gardens, has revved it back into life.
I don't envy him the pressure of stepping into Hunter's shoes and the expectations of not only a visionary employer (Allan Myers, QC), but of a small country town. The comparisons are inevitable, and his eight-course degustation sticks closely - let's say conservatively - to the Royal Mail's very modern food identity.
The food is still about channelling nature, presenting ingredients at their purest and best, straying occasionally into the hyper-real. For all the similarities with his predecessor, Wickens' debut isn't as technical or so incredibly individual.
Yet while his plates seem simpler he knows how to make an impact. His ''tomato explosion'' is a quirky little winner - a raviolo that erupts with the very essence of tomato when you bite into it. It's fun and delicious, which is precisely what an amuse-bouche should be.
The fresh green of finely shaved asparagus on a set custard with parsley juice, coriander flowers and nasturtium leaves is a pure, bucolic scene-setter. Another dish drills down into the essence of baby carrots' sweetness with carroty jubes and tufts of carrot cake and the bass notes of sheep's yoghurt and fennel pollen.
Tiny leaves of Japanese mint, a recurring ingredient, give an improbable eucalyptus tilt to a broad white plate decorated sparingly with a scallop, a salty-good piece of pork belly, and duck yolk tinged with saffron and a pea and borage puree. It looks sparse, even a little boring, until everything is mixed together, and then the fireworks begin.
Blue-eye cod, brined and cooked sous vide to a glossy finish, is matched to a rich oyster butter, salty pearls of avruga, and various bits of wild greenery. I like it. I like it a lot, despite having to swat away the guilty thought that Hunter's tuna dashi broth would have lifted it to another level.
There's classical form and flavour lurking in the wagyu featherblade, a tribute to low-temperature cooking with bone marrow encircled by a faux bone cross-section made of golden-fried mashed potato.
In another trick, strawberries are fashioned from frozen strawberry custard, the green stems attached like cute hats. It's a likeable tribute to berry season.
Some other observations. In the past, the stiffness of the service, including a tightly choreographed plate delivery, seemed designed for maximum diner discomfort. This time around the buttocks were unclenched. Good.
The wine list, of course, remains one of the nation's benchmarks. Sommelier Jeremy Bourke has the world at his fingertips - a ''natural'' cru beaujolais with a wallaby dish is the finest wine matching I've experienced - but he also champions local heroes such as the wonderful Crawford River. The wine matching, at $100 a head, is worth it.
Hunter's departure, inevitable though it was, was probably the restaurant story of the year. I can't wait to see what he does at Brae, which opened two days ago. But over in the southern Grampians, the dust has settled. Robin Wickens is getting back to the business of serious cooking. And the Royal Mail is getting back to the business of being the Royal Mail.
The best bit The kitchen garden - it informs every plate
The worst bit Beware the temptations of the wine list
Go-to dish Scallops, pork belly, duck egg
- 03 5577 2241
- Cuisine - Contemporary
- Prices - Eight-course degustation $140
- Features - Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Views, Wheelchair access, Accepts bookings, Bar, Outdoor seating
- Chef(s) - Robin Wickens
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Wed-Sun 6.30pm-late
- Author - Larissa Dubecki