Royal Mail Hotel - Dunkeld, Australia

Dinner - Sunday, October 14, 2012

This meal has been a long time coming.

Ever since I first heard about the dining room at the Royal Mail Hotel (the source of this information has been lost in the mists of time), it has been a magical place to me. This compulsion was compounded by pictures I saw of my brother's dinner there a few years ago - the lineage to Andoni Aduriz was evident (Mugaritz remains one of my favourite meals of all time).

Nestled in the sleepy town of Dunkeld at the southern foothills of the Grampians mountains, the hotel is a low-lying and unassuming place - we would've driven right past it were it not for the fact that we had five pairs of eyes in our car. Dinner at the restaurant necessitates an overnight stay at the hotel (unless you're the kind that likes driving long distances in the middle of the night), and guests are treated to a sumptuous breakfast with all manners of house-made products the morning after - sadly, not covered in this post as I did not take any pictures.

Let us instead focus on the tasting menu. As mentioned above, expectations were high, particularly with the aforementioned brother in tow. To my great surprise and delight, our dinner completely lived up to its billing. Although I have not written notes for every course below, let me say this - not one dish was a miss.

Rice paper, yuzu, ikura
I viewed this as a haute play on keropok. This (amazingly greaseless) mouth-watering morsel was crispy, salty, and beautifully seasoned.

Chicken crisps, eggs on rye
Continuing with bites that literally made us salivate, we were served some ridicuously good chicken crisps (left) - perhaps the best version of chicken skin I've ever tasted. Again, these were remarkably free of oil and grease. To the right of the crisps, we were served rye wafers with two toppings - one containing pickled shallots and freeze-dried sake, the other a light scramble of truffled eggs. Both were excellent.

Purple broccoli, Savoy cabbage, kale
Dehydrated brassica leaves, each a wonderful concentration of its parent plant. I really appreciate presentations like this that allow me to make direct comparisons between related species - the nuances are made readily apparent.

"This morning, this Spring"
Asparagus, pea flowers, radish
A superb beginning, again featuring that Australian asparagus of which I have grown so fond. I believe the stalk was just lightly blanched, allowing its freshness to shine. It was garnished with floral daikon and watermelon radish flowers, and an acerbic radish ice. After having been lulled by the previous courses, the bracing granita was a shock to our system - it refreshed our tastebuds anew. The canvas was a thick and rich pistachio-spinach puree, so deeply verdant as to be unreal - it provided the nuttiness to balance the sharp flavours from the flowers and ice.

Jerusalem artichoke, triple cream cheese, hazelnut praline
To my mind, a sophisticated take on the baked potato. The sunchoke itself was preternaturally creamy, and combined with the oozy cheese filling, every bite literally melted in our mouths. The firm skin of the sunchoke was packed with flavour, and provided textural contrast together with the chopped hazelnuts.

Egg yolk, new potatoes, salt fish, fish crackling
Globe artichoke, coastal plants, gem lettuce, lemon myrtle
Broad bean leaf, salsify, buttermilk
This is the dish that has haunted me constantly since that night. Specifically, the succulent hapuku flesh, which was firm but yielding, and so delicious. I'm still struggling to express exactly how it tastes, but it continues to elude me. Together with a handful of accoutrements (broad bean leaf does taste magically like the bean proper), this was a perfect course.

"Garden salad"
This Australian gargouillou featured an astonishing number of vegetables from the hotel's gardens, but was extremely well balanced (I tend to find many interpretations overly vegetal, what with the various foraged bitters and all). Tying the disparate components together was an arugula pesto, and a rather subtle coffee-cocoa soil.

Bone marrow, eel, eggplant, pickled vegetables
Salt-baked garlic
Cauliflower, smoked buttermilk, aged Pecorino
Young garlic is one of my favourite things about Spring. Here, its roasting summoned earthy notes very unlike its usual grassiness. Served very simply with browned cauliflower florets and a thin spoonful of smoked buttermilk, we were able to savour its complexity (certainly enhanced by time in the salt crust). The crumbled sheep's milk cheese was sharp and nutty, with a slight sweetness - a prototypical Pecorino that paired nicely with the other components.

Eggplant in white miso
Dried grains, cured kelp broth
Beetroot, rhubarb, charred radicchio, pigeon floss
Parsnip, apple, salsify, crème fraîche
The focus of the plate centered on a length of parsnip, dried and its insides scraped out, leaving behind a crispy exterior. Below this, separate pools of apple sauce and an apple caramel kissed with fennel pollen. Brilliant - a variety of textures and flavours in full force. The parsnip qualifies as one of the single best things I have ever eaten. Apples and crème fraîche are a no-brainer, but here again, the potency of each component left me reeling.

Milk and honey ice
Milk skin, mandarin, black truffle
Carrots, coffee, cardamom
The best possible way to end a meal? I definitely think so - only the natural sweetness of the dried carrot to balance the comforting flavours of cardamom and the bitter tinge of coffee. Infinitely better than chocolate (sorry, chocolate-lovers).

Dan Hunter, front and center at the pass
The menu is seriously considered and pared down to its essence - there are no unnecessary flourishes, no superfluous ingredients, only intensity where it is best served. He effortlessly connects his Australian garden, through his imagination and skill, to a diverse and ever-changing audience. And we felt it - his thoughts and intentions laid bare on our plates.

I needed some time to let the after-effects of our meal percolate through my brain. Do I still think as highly of the dinner a few weeks after the fact? Yes. This was, hands down, the best meal of our trip - Dan Hunter is the real deal. Worth a special journey, indeed. When, oh when, will we be able to return for more?

Royal Mail Hotel
98 Parker St.
Dunkeld, VIC 3294
Phone: +61 (3) 5577-2241