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Regional restaurant of the year 2010: Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld

It’s a big ask in terms of time, distance and money to eat at Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel, but this is a restaurant that answers all the questions with a resounding yes. It’s a place that truly embraces the philosophies of regionality and seasonality, presenting them in a way that’s unmistakeably modern and complex but that also values the simplicity and purity of beautiful ingredients.

Chef Dan Hunter’s years in Spain, in particular those he spent as head chef at San Sebastián’s Mugaritz, can most clearly be seen at the Royal Mail in the kitchen technique and technology that creates the sometimes challenging textures and flavours in his carefully constructed dishes. But it’s also apparent in the careful sourcing of ingredients both from the region and from the extensive kitchen gardens, orchards andolive groves that surround the Royal Mail. Hunter’s artful dishes are often scattered with rare and heirloom leaves, petals and herbs that, having been harvested straight from the garden, have the power to really delight with their just-plucked freshness and undeniable prettiness.

Hunter’s food is undoubtedly worked – how else to describe a dish of roast pigeon with white chocolate powder and rose petals? – but there’s no gimmickry or gratuitous showiness. The overall effect is subtle, clever and ultimately memorable.

It’s a testament to Hunter’s virtuosity, too, that diners who choose the Menu Vegetarian over the Menu Omnivore are in no way short-changed by the kitchen. You can forget the usual cheese-reliant, textureless pap that even many of our finest restaurants serve as their meat-free options. At The Royal Mail, ingredients as disparate as coffee and honeycomb, kohl rabi and seared rice are brought into play. Further intrigue is found in such combinations as tofu, vine ash, onion and ginger, or egg yolk, toasted rye, legumes and yeast. You may be enjoying your pork and scallop with celery and eggplant or the matching of eel with melting beef tendon and potato, but your eyes will stray to the plate across the table nonetheless. We proffer a simple, elegant solution: stay two nights and try both menus. It’ll leave time to have a ramble around Mount Sturgeon or play a round of golf, but, most importantly, it’ll give you the chance to take another good tilt at the wine list.

With its sensational collection of Burgundy and Bordeaux wines alongside the great and the quirky from Australia, the Mail’s cellar is undoubtedly one of the best in the country, and it’s a very deserving past winner of our Wine List of the Year award. Lok Thornton, the beloved and wildly passionate Jack Black of the sommelier world, has left the building, alas, but the wine list remains in good hands, accompanied by knowledge and service that does it – and the food it’s served with – proud.

The once uninspiring dining room has lifted its game too with comfortable leather chairs, freshly ironed linen and abstract landscape art going further than ever before in matching the elevated experience of Dan Hunter’s food. Exciting, interesting and original, the Royal Mail has become one of Australia’s true culinary pilgrimages.

Royal Mail Hotel, 98 Parker St (Glenelg Hwy), Dunkeld, Vic, (03) 5577 2241

WORDS MICHAEL HARDEN PHOTOGRAPHY TIM JAMES

This article is from the September 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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