In a bite
Dan Hunter is proof that it’s OK to leave school with no idea what you want to do with your life, smoke a little dope, chase a girl around the world, drift a bit and figure out who you are, because one day, you might end up becoming one of Australia’s best chefs, running one of the best restaurants in the world just outside a small Victorian country town.
Setting the table
Brae is Hunter’s field of dreams, which he opened in December 2013.
After turning Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel into a spectacular destination restaurant in Victoria’s Grampians region, the chef struck out on his own, buying a small farm and restaurant (George Biron’s legendary Sunnybrae) in the Otways hinterland, a two-hour drive from Melbourne, and 40 minutes north of the Great Ocean Road.
Influenced by his time at Spain’s Murgaritz, one of the world’s top 10 restaurants, Hunter has built on Biron’s original vision with an organic kitchen garden that drives much of the menu along with produce from surrounding farms.
On-site accommodation that opened last year offers a lucky few the chance to give the fascinating wine list a serious workout. He revamped the old weatherboard farmhouse to create a elegantly modern dining room with a fireplace in one corner and views of the surrounding countryside.
Critical plaudits have followed, from being named the 2016 chef of the year by both The Age Good Food Guide and Australian Gourmet Traveller. Last night Brae joined the culinary elite as No. 44 in the World’s 50 Best restaurants rankings.
The global esteem Hunter commands is personified in his upcoming cookbook, “Brae”, from Phaidon, which published books by the 50 Best chefs including Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, and three No. 1 titleholders: Noma’s Rene Redzepi, elBulli’s Ferran Adrià, and Osteria Francescana’s Massimo Bottura.
Brae’s $220 degustation menu that takes you on an adventure from the surrounding mountains to the nearby ocean, with Hunter’s own garden as star of the show.
What to eat
Dining at Brae means surrendering to Hunter’s vision in a tour de force of nearly 20 different dishes. The meal lasts for several hours – take a break during lunch for a walk in the garden – starting with an exquisite canape of zucchini blossom with sheep’s curd and chilled plum tea as you settle in.
Just as his 50 Best colleague, Ben Shewry at Attica in Melbourne, has created his own culinary language by combining native Australian flavours with his New Zealand heritage, Hunter has his own distinctive voice, which manages to be both familiar and exotic. His dessert of a parsnip “cone” with freeze-dried apple, and apple and parsnip mousse, is testament to both his artistry and imagination. The menu waxes and wanes with the seasons, adapting to its daily rhythms too. This is my second visit in two years and the clear evolution in Hunter’s approach has brought greater sophistication amid apparent simplicity. Every dish has a small detail that manages, almost magically, to amplify and bring the flavours to life.
It begins with a rapid cavalcade of kaiseki-style morsels: a raw pea tart with the floral fragrance of lemon aspen; pickled cucumber infused with the native flavours of davidson plum and lemon myrtle.
“Mal’s beans get their moment” is a family anecdote of Jack-in-the-beanstalk proportions. Hunter’s Italian father-in-law came home with the seeds in his pocket, planted them and no one actually knows what variety they are, only that they’re bloody delicious.
Diced raw prawn wrapped in glossy, dark green nasturtium leaves, and sprinkled with tiny pearls of native finger lime is exquisite and sensual, while the accompanying grilled heads offer the high contrast of funky, earthy and concentrated prawn flavour. It’s the aquatic version of nose-to-tail eating and a reminder that deliciousness can be found in places most think is waste to be discarded.
Barbecued beetroot with honeycomb from the property and rainbow trout roe sounds theoretically impossible, yet the result – smoky, sweet and salty – is sublime, the textures exploding like fireworks in your mouth.
Yet one moment seems out of place, despite the fact that it’s become central to a meal at Brae in its short time on earth. The “iced oyster” is ice cream seasoned with powdered sea lettuce served in the shell. My head’s just fine with the idea of seafood ice cream, but I wish it had a more briny flavour – the overwhelming sweetness jars amid the savoury courses and washes away the ocean in the process.
But Hunter can play to sweetness and deliver it with panache, as the absolute show stopper of the first act in this meal is the smoked eel doughnut. The long fingers of star-shaped fried pastry take their cue from Spanish churros, and the crunch combined with the creamy eel brandade is impossibly more-ish.
So that’s the nibbles.
There are now seven more serious and seriously good courses to come, starting with saltgrass lamb underpinned by Asian inflections whilst the glossy thin sheets of raw meat with eggplant, onion and scattering of aromatic herbs and succulent plants for contrast and uplift are reminiscent of Lebanon’s kibbeh nayeh.
Oh, and bread, unbelievably good for its caramel crust, baked in the wood-fired oven outside.
Next it’s two small skin-on fillets of opulent, silken King George whiting stacked on a creamy melange of broad beans, leek and lemon before you’re picking over a platter of house-made pork charcuterie accompanied by a tomato tarte tatin in the most ethereal pastry.
The climax arrives in a bowl filled with a crayfish meat, with slices of shiitake mushroom and a raw egg yolk – Brae’s chickens – before a clear, dark and meat broth is poured in to create this sultry earthiness amid swirling textures made even more remarkable by the 17-year-old sake it’s matched with.
Consider the garden salad harvested by the chefs that morning, dressed in a beef fat vinaigrette the cigarette afterwards…
Yes, it’s starting to feel a little like the 70s French film La Grande Bouffe, but Hunter, and the quietly polished floor team led by Simon Freeman, have you in the thrall of this adventure through the landscape, so when another signature dish, the berries (in this instance brambles) with lemon curd and buckwheat crisps arrives buried under the red snow of powdered lovage, there is some relief a finish line is in sight, even if you’re torn by reluctance for the meal to end – something we prolonged by a walk in the garden before desserts.
After the parsnip and apple before a platter of mulberries and plums from Biron’s original orchard, and blood and pistachio biscuits with rhubarb and preserved blackberry with coffee and tea.
What to drink
For $130 your can put yourself in Simon Freeman’s hands with the matching wines. He won’t disappoint starting with the revelatory “uberbrut” sparkling from Holly’s Garden in Victoria’s King Valley, and the “Cranky Mrs IPA” from nearby brewer Rogue Wave for the starting dishes.
It can be provocative, like the Suertes del Marques “trenzado” (a reference to the way the vines are braided) white blend from the Canary Islands with the lamb. An aged Crawford River riesling is a joy with the whiting and 10-year-old pinot meunier from Bests in Victoria’s Grampian with the salad, and a French rose with the charcuterie. The parsnip pairs with a French “sticky” of sorts – the 2004 Domaine des Baumard Coteaux du Layon Cuvee Le Paon (made from chenin blanc) from the Loire.
The impressive global list requires some navigation, but Freeman’s an articulate advocate for his choices and has the breadth from modesty to extravagance.
There’s also a clever non-alcoholic matching option for $65, from iced lapsang souchong tea with fennel seed and orange, to a juice of cos lettuce, granny smith and salted hazelnut praline, and an infusion of echinacea and burdock root.
That stuff I said at the start about smoking dope and chasing a girl? I learnt all that from Hunter directly in the introduction to his forthcoming book. He figured out what he wanted to do after a couple of years and the spectacular result of his dedication to his craft is now there for all to share. He married the girl, they have a daughter, and I’m pretty sure he couldn’t remember the last time he rolled a joint.
Meanwhile, Brae is a national treasure that, like the gardens Hunter has planted around the property, will bloom and bear even more fruit in the years ahead. Go. Now. It’s the sort of place where, before you leave, you’re already wondering when you can return.
Need to know
4285 Cape Otway Rd, Birregurra, Victoria
Phone: (03) 5236 2226
Matched wines + $130pp
Matched non-alcoholic beverages +$65pp
[Restaurants are rated out of 5 knives and forks. Brae scores 5]
2000 Mukai Shuzo 'Natsu no Omoide' junmai sake, Kyoto, an inspired match with the crayfish to bring out the savoury umami flavours
The 2004 Domaine des Baumard Coteaux du Layon Cuvee Le Paon from the Loire, matched with the parsnip and apple
* Business Insider dined at Bray as a guest of Phaidon.
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