Friday, 1 June 2012

The Royal Mail Hotel

Scoring three hats is no small feat in Australia’s culinary scene. In fact, only four Victorian restaurants have managed to achieve this coveted rating: Melbourne’s Vue de Monde, Attica and Jacques Reymond continue to impress urban gourmands, while the fourth, the Royal Mail Hotel in the state’s west, attracts diners searching for a different kind of gastronomic adventure.  And they’re prepared to travel overland for it.  Executive chef Dan Hunter has taken a humble dining room at the Royal Mail Hotel to The Age Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year 2011 in just four years, and this year took home the Guide’s Chef of the Year award. So, given all this, it’s safe to say that we are more than thrilled to be setting off to Dunkeld for a weekend of nothing but amazing food, wine … and perhaps a little walking.

After an easy three-hour drive we arrive in Dunkeld, the gateway to the Grampians.  The town itself is tiny – no more than 600 residents –but it oozes charm and offers picture-perfect views of Mt Sturgeon. We check into our room at the Royal Mail Hotel then take a quick walk in the crisp country air before settling in by the fire with a glass of wine. Before we know it, the moment we’ve been waiting for has arrived:  a 10-course degustation dinner at the hotel restaurant!

The service is impeccable; from the moment we walk in, we are guided to our table and presented with water, napkins, menus and bread – performed as an elegant, seamless dance by the waiters. We decide against the matched wine option and instead order a bottle of chardonnay, which is quickly fetched from the cellar, brought to room temperature (and here I am putting my white in the freezer to get that extra chill!) and poured into beautiful large Riedel chardonnay glasses. 

The freshly baked sourdough rolls and homemade smoked butter is our first insight into the treats that lay ahead.  This butter is just divine, the salty smokiness is simply moreish and as I apply and extra layer after layer I erases all thoughts of calorie counting this evening!

 The act of receiving each course is a work of art in itself. Two waiters swiftly collect a plate each from the pass and take their place beside you; once the plate has been served, one waiter will retreat, leaving the more senior of the two to describe the dish you are about to eat. And so we begin…

1.       rice paper, finger lime and salmon roe; rainbow trout, coffee, black treacle;
      chicken crisp
2.       tomato and prawn, cinnamon basil, daikon ice
3.       pancetta and spanner crab, rye cream, candied radish
4.       egg yolk and new potatoes, salt cod, fish crackling
5.       sand flathead and tomatillo, mustard, toasted nori
6.       eel and bone marrow, eggplant, pickled vegetables
7.       pigeon, salsify and medlar, cabbage braised in pecorino
8.       fallen fruit – apple, almond, caramel, chamomile
9.       burnt plum, pumpkin and aniseed
10.   pistachio, hazelnut, honeycomb, chocolate

Top thee dishes:
3. Course eight: fallen fruit – apple, almond, caramel, chamomile
A beautiful dish not only on the plate but also the palette. A small poached and semi-dried apple filled with almond cream sits on a bed of caramel, surrounded by wafer-thin pastry crisps. Taken all together, it’s like the best homemade apple pie you’ve ever tasted!

2. Course four: egg yolk and new potatoes, salt cod, fish crackling
WOW. The yolk is served whole, perched on top of the soft potato and cod and garnished with lovely salty fish crackling. I slice open the yolk with my knife and the warm golden liquid covers the bowl. Each mouthful is rich, soft and creamy with a added little crunch from the crackling.

1. Course ten: pistachio, hazelnut, honeycomb, chocolate
AMAZING. For the committed sweet tooth, this is it; the ultimate dessert. Hazelnut mousse –lighter-than-air yet densely velvety, all in one contradictory mouthful – and luscious chocolate ice cream sprinkled with chunks of honeycomb and pistachio … it really is the perfect end to what has been an extraordinary culinary adventure.

A new experience: Course two: tomato and prawn, cinnamon basil, daikon ice
To me this dish epitomises gastronomy in my mind. The unique combination of textures – raw prawn flesh and ice shavings – is one I find a little challenging and, while the flavour is fresh, clean and intriguing, I cannot decide if I am in fact in love with or have perhaps fallen out with this dish. 

Not to my taste: Course six: eel and bone marrow, eggplant, pickled vegetables
One of the stranger dishes on tonight’s menu and, although I enjoyed the flavours, I found the texture of both the eel and the bone marrow slightly off-putting. The bone marrow is so rich that you only need the slightest amount; I found it quite overpowering and a little sickly.

As our long evening of decadence draws to a close, I reflected on the service, which is second-to-none, and the technical precision in the open kitchen that turns out edible works of art crafted from local produce and highlighting the best of the region. The restaurant itself, however, is a little on the stuffy side – so quiet that you find yourself whispering to each other and, despite the prestige of the restaurant, there is no real demarcation  between it and the bistro directly next door, other than a change in floor covering.

As we head out into the cold country air and begin strolling the 50m to our hotel room, I am in blissful awe of Dunkeld and the little food mecca that is the Royal Mail Hotel. 

18 O’s out of 20

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