Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year: Brae, the review

Go-to dish: Prawn and kohlrabi is a stalwart signature that has been upcycled.
Go-to dish: Prawn and kohlrabi is a stalwart signature that has been upcycled. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

4285 Cape Otway Road Birregurra, Victoria 3242

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Opening hours Mon 12–5pm ; Thu 6–11pm ; Fri-Sat 12–11pm ; Sun 12–5pm
Features Bar, Accepts bookings, Accommodation, Degustation, Gluten-free options, Green-eco focus, Groups, Licensed, Long lunch, Romance-first date, Vegetarian friendly, Views, Wheelchair access
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Dan Hunter
Seats 50
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone (03) 5236 2226

What kind of maniac invests a week of fiddly production into a snack that's gone in 60 seconds? What breed of sadist decides that making bread from temperamental whole wheat flour, milled fresh daily, and cooking it in an equally fussy outdoor oven is just too easy, so they go out and grow their own wheat crop? I mean, what sort of self-flagellating sicko looks at an industry buckling under the pressures of staff shortages, sky-high wages, fickle and over-stimulated diners and decides to make things spicier still by becoming a rural restaurateur, a hotelier and a farmer in one? Dan Hunter is who.

For the past six years we have dedicated plenty of ink to this three-hatted farm-to-table restaurant outside of Birregurra. We've waxed often about how lovely it is to sit in that colonial cottage with the sun spilling over its linens. How nice to tramp the gardens, point at chickens and sniff the wood smoke. Even so, since Hunter started his mission, terms such as sustainable and home-grown have been slapped on everything from city bistros to service station sandwich cabinets and all but stripped of meaning. It can make you forget just how intensely, sometimes insanely, layered the Brae experience is.

On a mission: Dan Hunter (left) in the kitchen at Brae.
On a mission: Dan Hunter (left) in the kitchen at Brae. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

If you consider your 100-click drive from Melbourne and $290 entry fee a heavy investment (it is), contemplate the journey of a single snack. A tiny pastry scroll, capped with a round of pumpkin and a glistening ripple of nori, is a year in the making if you count the growing of crops. It involves making light and airy croissants from hefty, whole wheat flour, necessitating tiny laborious batches. A wakame and olive oil mixture is infused for a week then used to confit the pumpkin. A sweet praline of the seeds slips between the pastry leaves. The nori is baked in a gratin with turnips and koji butter to impart their flavour, then picked out as a crowning jewel. It's Hunter's entire mission, condensed to a fleeting bite.

That is arguably more effort, philosophy and care than proud parents put into their offspring and you better believe they'll make you admire their work. To Brae's credit, despite having scaled the heights of world's best lists, it remains un-smug.

Rather than self-consciously reinventing itself annually, the menu, which enters and exits in a wave of tiny bites, is evolving and maturing by year.

Whole wheat croissant and braised pumpkin.
Whole wheat croissant and braised pumpkin. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Signatures remain, upcycled. So the raw prawn once wrapped in a nasturtium leaf with its grilled head on the side is still staring down its diners, but now the crisp head arrives inescapably cocooned in a fresh, double-layer taco of kohlrabi and that peppery leaf, sandwiching sticky prawn. Don't think, just crunch. It's every bit of sweet crustacean essence and none of its bitter notes to bite you.

Brae rewards the brave, but for every cliff dive, the recovery landings are pillowy soft. It is a restaurant that likes to push itself, yet it isn't an assault course for diners. See unctuous strips of pork jowl, dunked in an eel and veal stock reduced to a high sheen. You'll load cool cream and salty trout roe on to an ethereally battered slab of dutch cream. It takes the 2019 tuckshop-meets-fine-diner potato cake.

Perhaps the main beauty of this set-up is that it isn't just Hunter who improves by year. As the gardens grow in, the flavours deepen all on their own. Two of the three larger savoury dishes are straight from the land. A tumbleweed of tempura greens meets an explosive medley of nubile asparagus, waning broccoli buds and mustardy turnips, all lightly washed with a sharp, crumbly buffalo cheese expressed as a broth.

Pork jowl grilled over red gum.
Pork jowl grilled over red gum. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

As much blood, sweat and tears go into the wine matches, which are anything but. A mountain pepper leaf saison beer is brewed to be your potato's pal; a wild plummy umeshu finds the floral notes of a sorbet infused with flowering eucalypt and served with rhubarb-poached quandongs.

Brae isn't without its sticking points. Hunter's iced oyster, a creation that sees a salty-sweet sorbet spiked with oyster liquor sprinkled with a green dust of the dehydrated molluscs and sea lettuce for a high, metallic waft of seaspray, is the durian fruit of fine dining dishes. Out it comes, a mossy imposter among a plate of pebbles, and I hate it as much as I love that it's there.

Hunter knows it's polarising to the point that almost half the diners baulk. But he believes in it. That stubbornness is what it takes to face down drought. That assuredness is what it takes for magic to happen. Good restaurants dedicate themselves to making people happy. Great restaurants aren't afraid to shake your tree. Brae isn't easy to get to. It isn't easy to run. But even in moments when it isn't easy to love, it always commands your respect.

Cost Tasting menu $290, plus drinks.

Vegetarian They might make 11 menu variations a day catering for dietaries. Just book.

Drinks Wine, beer and spirit producers with similar long-way-round practices star.

Pro Tip: Stay in the luxe Six Degrees-designed accommodation with cocktails, vinyl, breakfast. Heaven.

Go-to Dish: Prawn and kohlrabi.