Imagination. Remember the word. Sure the Royal Mail Hotel story is about persistence, plenty of money and a dash of serendipity, but mostly, it's about imagination.
Imagine, if you will, stumbling into the 'local pub' and finding instead a smart mini resort looking out at the impressive silhouette of Mount Sturgeon at the southern gateway to the Grampians National Park. Imagine a town called Dunkeld in rural Victoria, 260 kilometres from Melbourne, with a population of just 460 and some of the most extraordinary food and wine anywhere in the nation.
Imagine finding one of the best wine lists in the land, based on a collection reputed to be worth more than three million dollars, one developed and nurtured over years of educated acquisition.
Imagine finding a young chef whose experience includes four years in Spain and a year as head chef of one of the world's best restaurants, Mugaritz in the Basque Country. And imagine that chef being able to exploit a kitchen garden full of wondrous things from within his employer's 20-hectare stone-walled estate. (Some call the two kilometre wall the Great Wall of Dunkeld, and it reputedly took almost a decade to complete.)
Imagine having an amazing dining experience here 'in the middle of nowhere,' remembering that this is all of 15 minutes outside regional Hamilton, heart of the conservative beef cattle and sheep-based economy of the Western District. It's not an exaggeration to say that, in reality, it's all just a little surreal.
Multi-millionaire barrister, pastoralist and businessman Allan Myers - one of Victoria's wealthiest people, said to be intensely private and one of six children of one-time Dunkeld butcher John Myers and his wife Betty - imagined it all. He spent the past decade putting the pieces together from the wine, the accommodation - ranging between hotel rooms, apartments, cottages, even a house - to create his majestic compound.
And with a little whiff of lady luck Myers and his Dunkeld pastoral team gained the missing piece of their puzzle last year. His name is Dan Hunter and he's one of Australia's great young chefs. The country boy from Bairnsdale in Victoria spent two years at Mugaritz in San Sebastián with Basque trailblazer Andoni Luis Aduriz, one-time Ferran Adrià disciple. The restaurant is highly regarded as one of the world's best (voted number seven internationally last year by British trade magazine Restaurant). After returning to Australia in 2007, doing some masterclasses with mentor Andoni and a brief stint at Melbourne's Fenix restaurant, Hunter found himself unemployed and, at the same time, difficult to employ, too. He was too experienced, his focus too singular, to cook other people's food; and he didn't want to run a restaurant. Then the Royal Mail came calling.
For many, the profound tree-change - Dunkeld is more than three hours' drive from Melbourne - might have held dubious appeal. But his bush background and time in Europe wasn't too far from this potential opportunity. Moreover, the ability to tap into resources, such as Myers' garden for herbs, vegetables, fruit and edible flowers, and dams for yabbies and fish, and ultimately pastoral interests for meat, was a major lure.
It's how Hunter loves to work. He calls his garden "the soul of the kitchen". At Mugaritz, the kitchen garden and its daily bounty is fundamental to what is plated. If ever there was an opportunity to emulate Mugaritz in an Australian context, this was it.
"It is important to deal with food in a way that demonstrates the true nature of flavour of a particular ingredient," says Hunter. "Purity of flavour is very important, as is lightness and freshness." In Myers, Hunter had found his Medici; and in Hunter, Myers had found the man who could help realise his dream of creating Australia's best regional restaurant.
The Royal Mail is not only special, but unique. Only a truly imaginative chef could produce this food, which is not to suggest creativity usurps sense or style. No, the fascinating thing about Hunter's food is that it's not wacky, just clever, lateral and true to the fundamentals of flavour, texture and respect for produce.
"It's not important that technology is what you notice when dining here, in fact quite the opposite," says Hunter. "I hope balance, lightness and freshness is more obvious. But without the use of certain techniques these objectives could not be achieved."
So, it is light food with a sense of folly that doesn't try too hard. It is food with great integrity and if you need a reference point, the Australian chef I'd most readily align Hunter with is Sydney's Peter Gilmore at Quay.
But enough with the generalisations. We start with a shaved baby fennel salad, which acts as a palate-cleanser, dressed merely with olive oil, confit lemon rind and salt (pepper is virtually unseen with Hunter). It hides a cooling, gelatinous teaspoonful of aloe vera lurking beneath. On the plate, an anise-scented poppyseed vinaigrette - a discreet charcoal smudge - while on top are tiny fronds of dill, parsley and violet-blue borage flowers, the first revelations of Myers' kitchen garden. It says much about what follows: uncontrived in its presentation, yet delicate, petite almost.
Next, in one of those shiny white, vortex-like plates sits a semi-circle of Robe lobster tail cooked at low temperature in a vacuum-packed bag so as to just set the protein; it has a sashimi-like texture, an opaque appearance and incredible flavour. What meat. And in a nod to cray-and-mayo memories, it sits in a puddle of white gazpacho made from almond, garlic and olive oil. Instead of bread for thickening, he uses xanthan gum, keeping it very light, finishing the dish with several scalpel-sliced chive batons, chive flowers and a few drops of orange-blossom water for a hint of acid and fragrance. Everything is in balance.
If anything here comes closest to acknowledging modern Spanish gastronomy's fascination with Japan, it's the cleansing smoked tuna broth, a dashi-style infusion, the colour and clarity of weak tea, with an earthy flotsam of translucent radish wafers, mustard cress, beetroot shoots and finely sliced raw shiitake and king brown mushrooms. A few jewels of spicy olive oil dot the surface. Restraint is everything.
With artichokes surrendering to the season, we're lucky to sample the very last from the kitchen garden with a dish simply - yet typically - entitled 'artichoke, pork, rocket'. Artichoke halves are fried in a seasoned potato starch; the result is a crisp yet pliable white shell revealing an explosive flavour. The pork comes in two guises: a pure, clear stock, almost jellied, courtesy of xanthan, and a piece of tail meat poached at low temperature in a vacuum-packed bag, yielding a gelatinous quality to the meat, then flash-seared for colour and crispness. The rocket? Three peppery, perfect rocket flowers picked that morning. Sublime.
The ride gathers momentum. Next is Hunter's 'calamari, black rice, peas, ginger', a playful tribute to squid-ink paella that sees pieces of ultra-finely scored calamari, fried golden with garlic oil, screaming with briny flavour, teamed with other elements that reference one of Spain's most famous dishes. A brick of black rice cake made from a purée of ginger-infused squid ink risotto, held in a block with its own starch, a wafer of crisp squid ink suggesting the pan crust so elemental to the paella, peas from the garden, and a tomato-onion paste on the plate representing the equivalent of sofrito, the starting point for so many dishes. A magnificent textural game.
A Valencian tribute (broad beans are a source of the city's pride) comes with a fish course, hapuku that has also been cooked at low temperature after an initial searing for colour, served with baby broad beans in a pale green yet clear 'sauce'.
Perhaps the most complex of the savoury dishes, is Hunter's rare-roasted lamb rump, another triumph of his low-temperature approach. Never have I tasted such an emphatically lamby piece of lamb, the sweet but singular flavour and smell of its golden, fatty exterior the essence of Australia. I can still taste it weeks later, while its texture - juicy, firm, yet remarkably tender in the mouth - continues to perplex. Hunter puts it on an almond milk 'cream', thickened to a creamy texture with kuzu starch to create a faux béchamel, without butter or flour. Beside it, baby carrots in a honey-sweetened rosemary glaze team with toasted whole almonds, white sesame seeds and a few baby leaves of cinnamon basil, a potent herb new to me. Viva the meat-and-one-veg main course.
A small berry cleanser straight from the garden - boysenberries and currants - shocks the palate with its herbal astringency and lack of sweetness. Wham, you're ready for the next chapter.
The first dessert delivers a richness of colour only matched by the surprising textures: watermelon, honeydew and rockmelon have been steeped under pressure in saffron syrup within a vacuum-packed bag resulting in compressed fruit that looks like paste.
The watermelon and rockmelon pieces are fused together in a single thick tile; the honeydew is cut into an elongated leaf and sprinkled with tiny basil flowers and even tinier basil leaves. Then a scattering of honeydew granita. Fabulous.
Next, Hunter's homage to Catalonia, a dessert that truly warrants the cliché 'burnt orange cream', his miniature versions of crema Catalana. They are made by creating a custard that is baked with orange and vanilla to the point that it virtually curdles. The egg mixture is then re-cooked/mixed with gelatine in a Thermomix before moulding and hit with the sugar and blowtorch. They are rich and sunny. Hunter serves them with crumbles of a pistachio polvoron (the marzipan-like baked almond meal and olive oil cake), thin fennel seed tuile, pineapple cooked in vanilla and rum with streaks of its sticky syrup.
Chocolate truffles and eucalyptus gels serve as petits fours and, of course, throughout all this, there is drinking to be done. Some will choose specific bottles; there is wine in the 'cellar' (a temperature and humidity-controlled warehouse on the other side of Main Street) but most I suspect, will go for the eight-course tasting menu and pay the extra $70 to have sommelier Lok Thornton - another émigré from the big smoke - match a series of Old World, local and, in the case of a particular 50-year-old Best's Great Western brandy taken straight from the hotel's own barrel, unique wines with the meal.
We could be picky about the room; frankly, by the time you're on a Philipponnat reserve rosé while nibbling on a house-made potato and yoghurt dinner roll, the focus will sharpen on the table. And knowing this extraordinary package is to get a brand new wrapping from the design team at BURO (responsible for Melbourne's The Press Club and The Botanical) makes it all the more palatable.
Just imagine what the place is going to be like by Christmas. Until then, we have a new culinary star in the firmament. A quiet, retiring star, in the middle of nowhere. Imagine that.