Destination restaurants are special. At times the community creates the restaurant, and vice versa, but the best examples have the two living hand in hand. Birregurra is a town I didn’t know well, but I will be getting to know for years to come thanks to Dan Hunter making it his town.
Dan Hunter didn’t establish Birregurra and he didn’t create the venue where Brae resides. It was previously “Sunnybrae” and I was unfortunate not to eat at this predecessor that had an amazing reputation of its own. However, Dan has, in the space of months, and particularly over the past fortnight, put Birregurra on the map for restaurant lovers both in Victoria, and throughout Australia. I expect he will put it on the world map in the not too distant future.
It is one thing to have a successful destination restaurant in a capital city that requires out-of-towners to fly in for a “must try” experience. It is a further stretch to have a restaurant in a small town, 90 minutes outside of the city. The thing I love about destination dining is the feeling of being away. Even if only for a night you are having a new experience, not only of the restaurant, but of the town the restaurant lives and breathes in. We chose Harvest Birregurra B&B as our accommodation for our Brae experience and Fiona & Steve could not have been more hospitable. We were relaxed well before we ventured to the restaurant in Steve’s “Chariot”.
Dan Hunter knows how to create brilliance to travel for. He was head chef at Mugaritz in San Sebastian which is one of the world’s best restaurants, before creating a destination of his own in Dunkeld at the Royal Mail Hotel. But Brae is special, Brae is his. There is overwhelming expectation created by the CV, and the recent awards Brae has received before it’s first anniversary.
It is easy to forget we are in the country as we step through the doors and into the comforting confines of a fine dining restaurant. For a building looking like a homestead, it is surprisingly sleek and restrained inside. The tables are well spaced, and the kitchen is in the spotlight, many of the tables facing the bright lights like it is the stage in a theatre.
There are many floorstaff and many chefs. On the floor there is a certain hum, it is smooth, and everyone is doing their job in an orderly fashion, but it is not stuffy. In fact, small delays and mistakes are made, but they are not worth noting. There is an assuredness in the service, but it is like the first quarter of a footy game – everyone knows their job, and is doing it well, but the team is not quite perfectly gelling – though it is not far from it.
The degustation consists of eight tastes to begin, five savoury courses, and two dessert courses. There are many influences, so many influences the cuisine can only be described as modern. The one dominant influence is the restaurant garden out the front as you drive in, which is rich in the freshest seasonal produce imaginable; the envy of city chefs. Most ingredients are sourced locally, including many of the wines in the optional matching.
Of the eight tastes, there are several that are outstanding. At the top is the “iced oyster”. There is no oyster at all. It is the essence of the oyster in a delicious sweet and salty ice cream served in the shell. Then the “beef tendon and mountain pepper” looks like a glorified prawn cracker. The gelatinous tendon must be dehydrated, and perhaps stretched, to achieve both an inviting texture, and a decadent richness. The prawn heads are served quite crisp and you are encouraged to eat the entire head, which is both flavoursome and a little disconcerting at the same time. If it wasn’t for friends, who I’ve seen devouring large prawn heads many times, I would have opted out! Other tastes featuring globe artichokes, radishes, and turnips, presumably straight from the garden, are excellent too.
The Hapuku fish is lightly cured with citrus and stands out even though delicate. It is beautiful from a textural perspective, the dressing glossing over the plate, and featuring varied herbs including Vietnamese mint, elk and lemongrass. Tiny pickled vegetables add some crunch into a genre of dish that is becoming a modern classic. In the next dish, warm ricotta again is the focus, covered in ground winter truffle, and incredibly presented with nettles and brassicas (mustardy cabbage) standing through the cheese.
Another modern classic is any dish featuring egg yolk. There are so many variants on this theme that it needs to be amazing, otherwise it is passé. Dan Hunter’s version is restrained for such a typically rich dish, and the dried jerusalem artichokes, and soft flavoursome potatoes, enhanced by the comte and vin jaune sauce, are definitely amazing together. The raw wallaby, in an array of spices, is covered in radicchio that has been soaked in maple syrup and charred. The charred beetroot it is served with is utterly superb. The two tie each other together in one of the best dishes I’ve eaten. Yes, it is raw wallaby and that is confronting in more than one way, but this is culinary genius. It is building on a foundation of two ingredients that work together, and launching it to out of space.
After the wallaby, it is hard to impress any more, but the Wessex saddleback pork is strong and flavoursome all the same. The meat is cooked so perfectly there has to be some science involved. There are so many techniques and such inspired cooking throughout the savoury courses that you are left wondering how the food could be topped by dessert. We were soon to find out.
We wouldn’t normally choose the wine matching. In multiple course degustations it is definitely a good idea, but getting the volume right is difficult and we were convinced some time ago that matching a glass to every couple of dishes can work better on occasion. Tonight, we were convinced otherwise and we appreciate the sommelier’s suggestion which he equated to four glasses of wine. The absolute highlight was the 2011 By Farr “Sangreal” Pinot Noir from nearby Geelong which was matched to the saddleback. The depth of the pinot is exceptional, with a great mouthfeel that lingers like the warm sunny day we’d just experienced. I thought the other highlight, amongst many other great matches, was the 2013 The Story “Westgate Vineyard” Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier from the Grampians. The perfect foil for the egg yolk, delivering savoury richness and balance.
When all you know of a dessert is “quince simmered with onions, honey, cultured milk” you could be led to believe you are about to eat another savoury course. However, the waitstaff put this impression to bed when they informed us the saddleback was the last of the savoury courses. So what we discovered with mouthwatering bite after bite is an intriguing dish, luckily not tasting of the onions the quince are poached in, but in perfect balance both in taste and texture. The slightly sweetened cultured milk has little pieces of honeycomb below it providing a crunchy burst of sweetness of its own. There are two strips of citrus peel providing a bitter note, with the divine honey bringing the dish together. It is one of those times where you don’t need to combine all five elements, but when you do you are rewarded.
Our next dessert is a signature of Dan Hunter. It has a high visual impact when brought to the table with the largest parsnip crisp you have ever seen protruding from the plate like a dosa in Southern India. On the parsnip is delicious shaved apple that enlivens the palate. Underneath, resembling a log, apple features in a mousse-like texture, and dehydrated apple, with skin on, is scattered over the plate. It is incredibly flavoursome, and incredibly fun. You end up breaking off pieces of the parsnip, scooping up some mousse, adding a bit of apple, and enjoying a taste sensation! It is hard to do any justice to the amount of imagination and technique this dish would require and it wouldn’t be out of place in any of the world’s best restaurants but feels completely at home in Birregurra.
For a destination restaurant to work it has to have something special, and it relies on the community to add a further intangible quality to the experience. Birregurra is used to having a great restaurant to call it’s own, and Brae seems to have captured the imagination of this community and given them another aspect of their town to be very proud about. Dan Hunter has made a good decision to move here, and I’m positive Birregurra is the envy of towns across Victoria and throughout the world.