This past rainy Sunday, Madame L and Mister L travelled with @wine_brain_kp out to Brae (@BraeRestaurant braerestaurant 4285 Cape Otway Rd, Birregurra, Victoria) – Dan Hunter’s captivating restaurant, vegetable gardens and orchards, 140 kilometres southwest of Melbourne – and enjoyed some of the most confident and technically exciting food we have had.
Dan Hunter once cooked at Mugaritz (6th on San Pellegrino’s World’s Best Restaurants) before six years leading the kitchen of Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel, which he took to Three Hats and won The Age Good Food Guide’s 2012 Chef of The Year. There are certainly references here to the sensorial creativity, smoky Iberian grill and the obsession with seasonality.
The name of the restaurant is explained as ‘Brae \’brā\ n. — A hillside; a gentle slope. A modern restaurant set on 30 productive acres.’ Formerly Sunnybrae cookery school, which established the remarkable gardens and Alan Scott brick oven, Restaurant Manager Simon Freeman explained that the farmhouse was stripped back and reimagined by long-time friends and hospitality specialists Six Degrees Architects. From the palette, the artworks and murals, the quirky application of fencing stakes, to the play list, the restaurant is a true reflection of the mind of the chef.
The Summer menu began with seven tastes matched to a local sparkling wine NV Holly’s Garden überbrut (sommelier Meg explained was chardonnay, pinot noir and with a small amount of pinot blanc), which we thought was a little wild and unfocussed and Edge Brewing Project ‘Cool Hops’ a brilliantly fresh and lively microbrew.
In the first tranche, Cucumber and lemon myrtle was a very delicately pickled cucumber, with the delicious native flower freeze-dried, powdered and sprinkled on top. Brook trout and nut butter crisp was a flash fried trout skin crisp, with smoky trout and nasturtium, which was delightful. Raw pea and lemon aspen tart was a riot of fresh baby peas on an ever-so-slightly-too-short pastry. Sapphire potato and smoked eel sandwich was a perfect mouthful of crispy wafer thin potato and creamy-smoky fishiness.
Next, we had the Prawn, nasturtium, finger lime, which was a very playful, textural juxtaposition of crispy fried prawn head, which could be taken in one crunch revealing umami juiciness and a leafy parcel of very delicately cooked prawn tail, with the citrusy burst of lime cells on top.
Finally, we had the Beef tendon and mountain pepper, which was like a particularly hearty prawn cracker, a bit oily with fragrant ground pepper. The Iced Oyster was incredible. The oyster brine was combined with sheep’s milk curd into an ice cream and served in the shell, while the oyster itself had been freeze dried along with apple cider vinegar and herbs, powdered and sprinkled on top of the ice cream. It was an outstanding crescendo in complexity and flavour to whet our appetites for the main degustation.
We began with the Calamari and black lip abalone, broccoli and blue mackerel, which had a decidedly Japanese accent, with the thinly sliced seafood barely-poached in the delicious liquor and topped with nasturtium leaves. This was matched to 2013 Sutton Grange ‘Estate’ Fiano from neighbouring region Bendigo, a waxy, honeysuckle, barrel fermented, textural beauty.
Crayfish and burnt potatoes, sunflower, milk and mustard was a parcel encased by the milk ‘skin’, with crayfish, slightly underdone but smoky-burnt potato cubes and mustard, an impressive technical display served with 2014 Chikuma Nishiki ‘Kizan’ Junmai Ginjo Nama Genshu, Nagano Japan. We recognised the winter Olympics city, a definite mountain producer but were astounded by the balance, texture and dynamic character of this sake.
Eggplant and salt grass lamb washed with sweet onion juice, fragrant and acidic plants was a piece of salty lamb that seemed to have been poached in a sweet onion liquor, with shavings of garlic, soft, collapsing eggplant and some gorgeous leaves from a plant we’d never seen before, Ice Plant, with tarragon. The cloudy-natural-wine look of the 2013 Testalonga Bianco Vermentino, Liguria, Italy worried us a little, but the robustness imparted by the extended skin contact, with its wild hay bale, oyster shell, honeysuckle, yeasty characters made this (usually searingly-austere variety) just an inspired match.
Hapuku, cured pork and bok choy, fish roe whipped with onion was a gorgeous fillet of Hapuku (found in deep offshore reefs around the continental slope across the southern portion of Australia) that fell into buttery flakes, with pork cubes, spears of bok choy and a jus of onion and roe. Matched to a cellar release of arguably Australia’s best Riesling 2006 Crawford River ‘Museum Release’ Riesling, Henty, Victoria was still youthful with lime peel and melon but with some creamy lemon curd notes and length for days.
Aged Pekin duck wood roasted on the bone, quandong, dried liver was rich, smoky and delicious. (Simon told us later that the ducks are stuffed with straw and roasted in the Alan Scott brick oven and then smoked on the grill, with the straw that had been in the duck.) The sharply acidic native stewed quandong was a great foil and the powdery liver added a lovely complexity. Matched with a cellar release of 2009 by Far ‘Tout Prés’ Pinot Noir, Geelong, Victoria, a single vineyard from iconic winemaker Gary Farr (influenced by his many vintages at Domain Dujac) was a deep, complex, spicy, mineral, seamless wine, undoubtedly among Australia’s best pinots.
On to the desserts, Apricot simmered with honey and vanilla, sheep’s milk and dried custard was an incredibly concentrated reduction of apricot, with a sheep’s milk ice cream providing a lovely acidic twang, with crumbled sheets of dried custard and honeycomb made from honey collected on the property. The 2012 Domaine Barmes-Buecher ‘Rosenberg’ Pinot Gris, Alsace, France had the concentrated, blooming-floral notes and sweet viscosity to match this complex pudding.
Parsnip and apple, which was a parsnip, cut in half with most of the flesh removed and the skin ‘shell’ deep fried, brushed with honey and served with a crème, dried apple powder and a small piece of roasted apple – possibly the dish of the day in an incredible line up. Matched with the 2012 Domaine des Baumard ‘Cuvée de Paon’, Coteaux du Layon, France, a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc with honey, marmalade, lanolin and marzipan characters that were a beautiful complement.
After lunch, we couldn’t help but enjoy a digestif (Auchentoshan 12 YO and Amaro Nonino, both charming) and hear more about the project from Simon. In a little over 18 months, Brae has swept all before it in the competitive Australian food scene. Three Hats in the Good Food Guide, Three Stars in Gourmet Traveller, Chef of the Year in both and cracked 87 on the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant list.
It seemed very much that this great leap forward was driven by the uncompromised, authentic vision that Dan Hunter, Simon Freeman, their partners and vastly impressive team have been able to execute. The balance of each dish within the context of the entire menu was amazing! Very well worth the gastronomic pilgrimage (the local Birregurra Farm Store is a must-stop on the way home), which will be even more delightful when their luxury suites open from March 2016!
Brae +61 3 5236 2226
4285 Cape Otway Rd, Birregurra, Victoria, Australia