Great restaurants are an amalgam of many physical and human elements; bringing them together can be hard, even when the location is central. For it to happen in rural Victoria, as has happened at Dunkeld's Royal Mail Hotel, is the kind of serendipitous outcome nobody could seriously have planned. Sometimes, the stars just line up. People and place seem meant for each other. And the result? Fireworks.
In this case, Dunkeld's only pub, about three hours fast drive west of Melbourne, is the unlikely hot spot. It's a restaurant with the kind of buzz most city places would kill for. Is it a bona fide dining destination worth detouring for? Hell, the Mail is the kind of restaurant travellers would build itineraries around.
Owner Allan Myers, reclusive barrister and businessman (and wine collector), is responsible for the resort-like hotel at the foot of Mt Sturgeon, in western Victoria. It's an idyllic spot and Myers' own nearby estate was the ideal place for a kitchen garden. But, initially, his wealth wasn't enough to attract the kind of chef capable of doing justice to his venture. What Myers needed was a great chef with experience in a rural location, a progressive thinker, for whom the kitchen garden is an essential tool and for whom seasonality is not about what the wholesaler can deliver but what is growing out back.
Myers needed a chef so dedicated to the craft that he was not only prepared to live in a remote location, he needed to. A chef whose experience and focus probably precluded him from 99 per cent of restaurant jobs, so unprepared was he for compromise. A chef who needed an Allan Myers. That chef was Dan Hunter.
Dan Hunter left Melbourne years ago to scratch an itch that was contemporary European gastronomy. He ended up as right-hand man to Andoni Luis Aduriz, chef-patron of Spain's Mugaritz, where he learnt about texture, flavour, beauty and free-thinking. Hunter came back a square peg to the mostly round holes of Melbourne restaurant jobs but he was perfect for Myers.
While sommelier Lok Thornton runs the floor and its essential wine service, Hunter produces food that sails to all the wind shifts of modern gastronomy but never drifts into the adverse tide of irrelevance or molecular nonsense. To eat and drink here is fun, nourishing, delicious, educational and hugely relaxing. Everything a great restaurant is supposed to be.
Royal Mail Hotel, 98 Parker St, Dunkeld, Vic, (03) 5577 2241, royalmail.com.au
WORDS JOHN LETHLEAN PHOTOGRAPHY JULIAN KINGMA
This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.