Brae is a destination and requires some forward planning. Recently voted #44 on the World’s Best Restaurants list, you will need to book well in advance. A farmhouse in the Otway hinterland, near the village of Birregurra, now transformed into a 16-course degustation restaurant with on-site luxury accommodation, you will also need to plan how to get there and how long to stay; I recommend taking the option to dine at lunchtime and stay overnight, to enjoy the complete experience. A true paddock-to-plate experience, chef Dan Hunter, who put the Royal Mail at Dunkeld on the map, and partner Julianne Bagnato, have created an icon, which has now been immortalised in that bible of gastronomy, Phaidon. We were lucky to secure a table on a Monday as most weekends are already spoken for.
Understanding what 16 courses entails is important. We opted for lunch, knowing that even though the dishes would be petite and delicate, we would be well satiated by the end, and require a brisk walk around the property to view the source of all that goodness, before retiring for the evening to one of the most luxurious “bush cabins” I have ever stayed in – but more on that later.
Firstly, the food and wine immersion! Great dining experiences start at the door and this was definitely the case with Brae. We were greeted by friendly and welcoming staff to this sleek and modern, yet homely, space, as if we were family visiting from afar. Ushered to our table we were presented with the extensive menu, choosing to go with the unique alcohol pairing, consisting of everything from beer and sake, to local and international wines.
Dan aims to challenge and surprise, without alienating, and I think he achieves that aim. A smoked eel doughnut in the shape of a traditional Spanish churro had an unexpectedly delicate savoury flavour. It worked in perfect unison with the Cranky Mrs IPA, from Rogue Wave brewery, which is nearby at Aireys Inlet. The iced oyster needed some explanation and didn’t disappoint as it arrived on a bed of stones, whipped into a ‘sorbet’ and coated in – I wasn’t sure – matcha? seaweed? – who cares, it was delicious! The crayfish and shitake with Brae farm egg yolk, meat broth and seaweeds, paired with a 16-year aged Mukai Shuzo sake from Kyoto was a revelation.
Most ingredients are either sourced from the farm or nearby, and showcased in unusual ways, such as the barbecued beetroot seasoned with rainbow trout roe and Brae Farm honeycomb. Dan also has a sustainability focus, as evidenced by his use of what would normally be considered unsuitable ingredients such as the 8-year old retired Angus breeding cow which he dry ages for 60 days to give it an intense yet delicate flavour, and complements with clam mayonnaise. The sweet end to the meal is refreshingly light and fruity, with rhubarb and pistachio, blood and preserved blackberry and sun ripened strawberries adding a burst of natural flavour.
Some hours later, we are presented with a beautifully presented menu to take home as a reminder of our wonderful food journey, and emerge into the late afternoon sunshine. We are glad to have not taken the option of a platter in our room for dinner, and instead opt to laze on the balcony, watching the sun set over a quintessential Australian bush landscape. That evening, we listen to the eclectic selection of records provided in the room, nibble on some olives and nuts in the well-stocked fridge and eventually flop into the absurdly luxurious king size bed. Breakfast consists of some Brae-made bread and preserves, cheese, meats and eggs if we desire, provided in the room to consume at leisure.
Overall, it has been a memorable experience. You will need deep pockets to eat and stay here, but if you are like me, you will appreciate that bucket list items should never be judged on price!
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