Heading back off into the doom and gloom after a pitstop at Eclectic Tastes in Ballarat, Tris drove while I wrestled with the car heater and cranked out guilty pleasure DJ sets for hours.
Eventually, we arrived at our destination: the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld. Our combined glee was palpable and understandably so. Internationally recognised food celebs like Anthony Bourdain rate it quite highly (though I can’t find his alleged quote that it’s in his personal top five restaurants in the world) and it’s really, well, bluntly, in the middle of nowhere. So, why does it lure so many intrepid foodies? Well, I hope to show you by reporting on our visit and would be keen to hear whether it would lure you, dear reader.
However, it isn’t just the dining that’s highly seductive: actually staying at the apartments is a wonderfully lavish experience and highly recommended. As part of the package booked, we got complimentary sparkling wine, chocolates and fresh fruit upon our arrival (and Aesop toiletries also got me awfully excited, I confess!). I got into my evening wear and when I emerged, we tucked into these goodies in front of an open fire that Tristan had stoked in quite the becoming manner.
So yes, staying at the restaurant’s accommodation is a definite no-brainer.
Onto the meal proper now! Of course the ‘mistake’ to overindulge in the bread before the main courses when house cured butter is on offer is evident. I ‘blame’ that butter, oh luxurious butter, and yes, perhaps the bread is not entirely faultless…
On the particular evening we dined (mid-May, with their omnivore autumn menu, changing with the seasons), our meal started with a playful interpretation of a pork sandwich and a Jerusalem artichoke. Easily the poshest pork sanga I’ve ever eaten and the artichokes were deceptive if you chose to judge them upon looks: its hide was quite tough, but velvet-soft purée was to be found once bitten into. Both provided a textural jaunt in the mouth.
The liquid accompaniment was a glass of Ca’del Bosco Prestige Brut NV from Italy: I fully disclose that my wine knowledge is non-existent and cannot offer any tasting notes above the calibre of “cor, that’s nice!” or “hmm…this one’s not really my thing”. You’ve been amply warned (sorry!).
More textural and aesthetic play was at hand with the first official course – the duck ham (which provided many a ‘cor blimey’ moment!), fig, kohlrabi and autumn blossoms. They’re so gorgeous on the plate that it seems a shame to desecrate them with one’s eating implements, would you not agree? A glass of Lustau dry oloroso ‘Don Nuño’ NV from Spain was perhaps not enjoyed as…politely as it deserved (read: I slugged it down because it was divine).
The tomato on toast with handmade sheep milk ricotta looked far less precious and you would be forgiven for thinking it a trifle…unremarkable? Toast, a chunk of tomato and cheese: the words make it sound unforgettable but it blew all expectations – my eyes widened with the first mouthful. Tristan, a former raw tomato-hater echoed my gustatory giddiness. To accompany, a glass of the Crawford River cabernet rose, 2010 from this here state Victoria.
The little knowledge of the menu I was armed with came largely from Claire’s fab review of the restaurant and the one dish I was really wanting to see was egg yolk, rye, yeast one. When she dined there, her version had asparagus whereas our menu specified that we’d have legumes – no specific one was listed.
It looks so pristine, the way the egg yolk sits atop the toasted rye; again, that conundrum – you don’t want to ‘spoil’ the edible sculpture but when you do, your tongue is amply rewarded. The crunch and toastiness against the egg is blissful. We were served this with a 2007 Dalwhinnie chardonnay from Victoria.
The dishes at this stage become less entrée-like and thus more meat and seafood laden. The first of such courses was the sand flathead with burnt potato, mustard and nashi. Though it surprises me, I enjoyed the ‘accompaniments’ more than the actual fish. There is something about the simplicity of potato done well that I just cannot resist – think, for example, on Attica’s eponymous potato dish. The wine matched was the E. Guigal ‘La Doriane’, 2001 from France.
Next up, a lighter offering – prawn and eggplant with wild mushrooms and cured kelp. The delicate broth paired wonderfully with the scant greens offered, it was elegant and lovely. Heading more into my personal preference in regards to wine territory (reds over whites), a glass of the 1990 Wynns ‘John Riddoch’ cabernet sauvignon accompanied.
The chicken, scampi, buckwheat, miso and sea lettuce offering was wonderful – I’m favourably biased towards buckwheat and miso and enjoyed the scampi more than the chicken. Some really delicate flavours here and again, thoughtful aesthetic touches. A glass of the Laurent-Gevery-Charbertin ‘Tradition’, 1998, from France accompanied.
One more savoury course! This one I gobbled up ‘heartily’ – lamb and carrots, soy cream and garlic flowers, the latter two elements making your standard ‘meat and veg’ extraordinary. Back to Australia wine-wise with a 2005 Highbank cabernet blend.
I am ashamed to admit that by the time dessert courses came out, my stomach stood well and truly defeated and most of my serving went to the (bigger) better half. The first desserty course was fallen fruit – apple, almond, caramel and chamomile. The apple had a candied quality to it.
Reminiscent of Attica’s ‘terroir‘ dish, the next one was plum, fig and walnut, beetroot and cocoa ice. I love the vibrancy of beetroot powder and how seductively it is draped over the fruit. An Italian wine was served – the 2008 Marenco ‘Pineto’ Brachetto d’Acqui from Piedmont.
Last sweet edible sculpture up! To finish completely, combination of pistachio, hazelnut, honeycomb and chocolate – quite simple ingredients by themselves but rendered like so, a treat. This was finished with a Sanchez Romate cream sherry, NV, Spain. It would appear I rather have a taste for sherry: my rule of thumb is if I recall more than just the taste, like, for instance, its mouthfeel (which I remember being divine), then it must be something I really enjoyed, again not being wine nerdy.
One can expect that such a sublime, romantic experience will not come cheap (both Tris and I were celebrating our birthdays albeit fairly late) and you can expect a dine-and-stay package for two to come to the thousand dollar mark, but what price happiness (and saving for ages)? Easily one of the most memorable weekends of my life, where everything seemed perfect in that dare I say it, film-like way. I find it hard not to look back on that weekend through rose-tinted glasses, I admit it. Should you be lured to make the trek, you may find yourself in the same position: here’s hoping.