Uninterrupted views of the Grampians, tabletops of sandstone quarried nearby and the option to dine kitchen-side - the Royal Mail Hotel's new restaurant, Wickens, is here and it's out to impress. The new building, designed by Melbourne architects Byrne, is full of theatre, addressing a gap between the quality of the food (which brought it to national and international attention under previous chef Dan Hunter) and the setting.
"It just wasn't a dining room that matched the standard of the food we were doing or that we wanted to get to," says chef Robin Wickens.
The dining room now offers views of the Grampians Ranges.
Wickens will continue to base his minimalist style of cooking around the property's large kitchen garden. This week the menu might include Great Ocean duck with green rhubarb and barbecued cabbage, caramelised artichoke hearts with bacon consommé and a blackberry leaf ice-cream with steamed fennel and lemon balm. But come back in a fortnight and chances are most of the menu will be different.
The entry to the dining room
The new restaurant, now housed in a separate building to the hotel, is reached by a path of elevated timber decking, with native plants on either side and recordings of local birds to keep you company. Inside, the room has three walls of glass. One, facing north, offers the views of Mt Sturgeon and Mt Abrupt that were conspicuously absent from the original dining room, while another wall turns out to be three temperature-controlled cellars containing the 800 bottles of wine that are on the Wickens wine list at any one time. The third wall separates the kitchen and dining room, giving diners a clear view of the kitchen action, and a timber light installation above the pass adds to the sense of a performance. Wickens says guests are invited to come into the kitchen during service and chat with the chefs, while at the four-person chef's table, situated with a full view of the pass, diners are served by the chefs themselves.
The more casual Parker Street Project, which Wickens also oversees, occupies the old dining room, serving plates more suited to sharing, such as a lamb shoulder braised overnight and served with brined new potatoes. Both restaurants focus on produce from the garden, Dunkeld Pastoral Company and, in future, the orchards of yuzu, clementine and cherry trees that were recently planted. A dry-ageing room in the new kitchen will give Wickens and his team more control over the menu, as will the pork farm they've just acquired.
"It's now absolutely worth making the drive out here to experience it," Wickens says.
Wickens at Royal Mail Hotel, 98 Parker St, Dunkeld, Vic, (03) 5577 2241, royalmail.com.au. Dinner Wed-Sun 6pm-late, lunch Sat-Sun noon-2.30pm.