Restaurant Reviews

Brae, Birregurra, Victoria restaurant review

After making his mark at the Royal Mail, chef Dan Hunter has taken over a new Victorian country classic, keeping the focus on the flavour of the region, writes Michael Harden.

By Michael Harden
You don't need a map to figure out that Dan Hunter has moved closer to the ocean; the news is right there on the plate. Many of the 10-plus courses at Brae arrive with the scent of the sea or are scattered and seasoned with the tangy salty crunch of seaside succulents. You can't see the ocean but you can certainly taste it.
The former executive chef at Dunkeld's Royal Mail Hotel (four-time winner of GT's Regional Restaurant of the Year award) has always been fiercely regional in his approach and his lengthy, brilliant (and pricey) dégustation menus at his former gig were virtual tours of region and season, intricately enmeshing flavour with location.
Hunter's philosophy means his new location, about 90 minutes from Melbourne, in farming country inland from the Surf Coast town of Lorne, has inevitably changed the flavours of his menu.
But the location also means his new restaurant is two hours closer to Melbourne. And while that makes Brae more convenient - Melburnians can easily do it in a day - it also alters the experience.
At least some of the attraction of a meal at the Royal Mail was the romantic food pilgrimage aspect of it - that you had to work for it, organising time and transport and accommodation. Does Brae's more accessible location mean the experience of eating Hunter's food is diminished?
The answer is an emphatic no. And not just because Hunter is a skilled, thoughtful and original chef but because with his new restaurant he's able to concentrate solely on the restaurant (leaving behind functions and bistro) and he has snaffled an established garden that opens up a wider range of ingredients and possibilities to him than ever before.
Brae was, of course, formerly Sunnybrae, the pioneering paddock-to-plate restaurant owned and run by chef George Biron. It came with established vegetable patches, olive grove and orchard that had been farmed organically by Biron and his partner, Di Garrett, for most of the last 30 years. Hunter has added beehives to the mix and a bespoke charcoal grill that sits next to Biron's brick oven in the courtyard behind the kitchen. There's a strong sense of potential about the place, the sort you get when something valuable is being appraised with fresh eyes. And it's reflected in Brae's first menu.
Take an early course, the one directly succeeding a fun-to-eat starter of beef tendon that's been cooked sous-vide and then compressed, frozen, sliced and fried so it puffs up like a sticky, salty, meaty prawn cracker that's then given a decent smidgeon of heat from a dusting of ground native pepperberry.
This second course is a three-parter, served on a textured earthenware plate the colour of river mud. The first part consists of asparagus spears (from the garden, the final haul of the season) served with asparagus purée sprinkled with terracotta-coloured prawn salt, made from ground dehydrated and roasted prawn heads.
Then there's a long, black, twig-like "burnt pretzel", looking like a vanilla pod but tasting like a pretzel (it's made from traditional pretzel dough) - coloured with squid ink, it has an outer layer of dark treacle. It's flecked with powdered pork crackling that adds both a hint of meaty goodness and a satisfying polenta-like texture.
The final (and best) instalment is wallaby tartare served on a flaxseed "cracker", topped with caper-like pickled dandelion buds, sorrel pods and lemon myrtle leaves. The tartare, made of diced raw leg meat mixed with mustard seed oil, pepperberry, wattleseed and lemon myrtle, is both restrained and robust, brilliantly textured and a wonderful dark-crimson colour. The cracker, meanwhile, spread with pale-green rocket purée, is made with dried flaxseeds, adding crunch and earthiness to proceedings.
It's a masterful start, full of imagination and verve. But it's also full of a sense of place, an earthiness. And while earthy is possibly not the first word that springs to mind when you're hearing about a restaurant where lunch sets you back $360 for two before you've looked at the wine list, the term fits. It's what makes eating at Brae so special: despite the sophisticated technique and intricate presentation, it never forgets it's a country restaurant.
It's a balance that's there in the dining room. Gone are Sunnybrae's rabbit warren of rooms and cluttered décor. That - along with several walls - has been swept away in a refit courtesy of architecture firm Six Degrees.
It's an airy, elegant single room now, all dark stained floorboards, soft white walls and banks of windows with some muted colour from the sage-green upholstered (for sound purposes) bulkhead above the entrance to the kitchen that's "open", though separated from the dining room by purpose-built full-length metal-framed glass doors.
The waiters' stations are purpose-built metal constructions, too, tall and lean with light boxes at the top and a marble bench in the middle. At one end of the room, a marble-topped bar is artfully cluttered with bottles and garden produce and there are splashes of vibrant colour in the large artworks by the likes of Gregory Hodge and Kate Daw.
There's luxury here - linen on the tables, chairs upholstered in khaki leather, poised and charming service - but you don't get the feeling of a country restaurant wishing it was in the big smoke. The bones of the original farmhouse are apparent, emphasised even, and they soften the sleekness with an attractive texture, history and, yes, earthiness.
The wine list's on theme, too, given its propensity for artisan producers and wine made with minimal intervention. It's hard not to compare Brae's list with the benchmark bristling behemoth at the Royal Mail, and if size were the yardstick, Brae's wouldn't be in the race. But it is a smart, trend-conscious list that will please lovers of small-house Champagne and fans of whiffy natural wines.
With no accommodation on the property (a 10-room plan is in the works), diners who don't organise accommodation nearby will find themselves driving the 90 minutes or so each way, something that's going to prevent many from giving the wine list a thorough going-over.
An overnighter is worth considering, not just because this is a wine list worth exploring but because Brae offers some of the best food in the country right now. And food like that is best savoured leisurely.
What's not to savour in a superb dish that has a brandade of short-fin eel piped into a rolled sliver of zucchini sitting in a small pool of macadamia milk, topped with two gloriously flavoured pieces of fresh sea urchin that have been quickly seared over hot coals on the outside grill?
Then there's a calamari dish that has a tang of the ocean to it. The calamari, a tender pure white roll that has been confit under oil, sits on an assortment of lightly pickled, nicely crunchy turnips and cucumbers and a grated hard-boiled egg. All of this sits in a clear broth flavoured with daikon, fennel, lovage and mirin and scattered with sea succulents.
It's pretty but the salad of mussels and salt-cod cream is prettier still, the main ingredients hidden under a translucent square of potato-starch sheet flavoured with fennel seeds and cider vinegar and scattered with wispy fennel tops, pollen and chive flowers. Underneath are four plump Portarlington mussels, lightly cooked in mussel stock and saffron, with a salt-cod cream lifted with lemon zest.
The technique and detail of these small (but not tiny) dishes is always impressive and often dizzying.
Rock lobster is cooked sous-vide, then warmed in "sea butter" made with sea lettuce, gathered from nearby beaches and dehydrated.
A short rib of grass-fed wagyu is brushed with a smoked eel glaze, topped with finger-lime pearls and accompanied by log-grown shiitake cooked in shiitake stock, sautéed and then glazed with more stock.
Saltbush lamb is char-grilled, thinly sliced and coated with a creamy mix of mayonnaise, tuna, tarragon and fennel. It's teamed with a purée of broad beans, hazelnut and sheep's milk yoghurt, and cos lettuce hearts, brined, then charred on the grill. There's oyster powder in the mix, too. It's all about different sources of saltiness, without being too salty.
Watermelon is compressed in rhubarb juice and then teamed with rhubarb, vinegar and rosewater granita, quandongs, juniper, mint and custard made with beetroot purée. It's a dish of such refreshing pink loveliness that it's hard not to choke your Instagram feed with pictures taken from every angle.
A dessert of parsnip and apple is more rugged but no less attractive. A whole parsnip, hollowed out and deep fried, acts as a kind of pastry tube that's filled with pieces of freeze-dried apple and an Italian meringue mousse flavoured with apple and parsnip and surrounded by a drizzle of caramel sauce flavoured with apple and chamomile tea.
When even the bread (sourdough, cooked in the outdoor brick oven) and butter (virgin, housemade with Jersey cream from local Schulz dairy) takes time to explain, it's a miracle Hunter's food doesn't come across as overwrought. That's his mastery, familiar to those who have eaten at the Royal Mail, but refreshed here at Brae by location and potential.
It's not simple food and the dégustation-only policy necessitates a commitment to eating a broad range of plant and animal life in a single sitting.
But there is simplicity here. It comes from a sharply focused purpose: to recreate the surrounding region in flavour. And it's something he does brilliantly.
Short-fin eel brandade