Saturday, 29 June 2013

Royal Mail Hotel - April 2012

This is certainly the latest review I’ve ever written, and a real test of my memory.

It is also slightly poignant to write given last week’s news that Dan Hunter is to leave the Royal Mail Hotel. I will watch with interest to see where he goes next, and how the restaurant evolves under new leadership.

To celebrate my mother’s 55th birthday in 2012, we made good use of my skerrick of an Easter holiday by going to the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, via Ballarat on the way (to see Cecil Beaton’s photographs of the Royal Family) and Bendigo on the way back (to see the Grace Kelly exhibition).

Cognisant of the lengthy degustation ahead, and the fact that Dunkeld is not really round the corner, I booked us in for an overnight stay at the hotel itself.

Our elderly guinea-pig Chomsky came for the ride, and hid under hay on the back seat of the car.

We arrived late afternoon, with enough time to unpack and go for a walk along the trails that run behind the rear of the restaurant property, seeing plenty of wallabies, slightly threatening kangaroos, and two attention-starved horses who occupied much of my time. (So says she who never quite out-grew the 8-year-old’s obsession with all things equine.)

Though well into autumn, and with a slight nip in the air, the weather stayed fine and allowed us to appreciate the dramatic scenery.

It was well and truly dark outside when we sat down for dinner, and the restaurant had was – in contrast to daylight hours – inclusively cozy. Round tables were covered with crisp white cloth, and a sprig of native flora alluded to the semi-foraged menu that was to come.

We started with some amuse-bouches, including seasoned shiso leaf, an extraordinary tapioca starch cracker with and without roe (depending on omnivorous status), and another omni/vege divergence I cannot remember but which was either chicken or pork and a crackery thing for me.

Bread and butter were both excellent, as would be expected.

Not all photos came out, so some courses may be missing. I can't for the life of me remember what the above was, but it will have been fantastic. 

Most exquisite carrots – heirloom varieties, intensely and distinct in flavour. Only comparable to the tiny new carrots dug up from my stepmother’s organic kitchen garden.

Egg yolk, nestling amid vegetables and (possibly) chicken skin.

Dramatic plating of tiny root vegetables, garlic and the most madly divine wee onions.

Fish of some sort – presumably very good.

A dish made for me – astringent, cabbagey, beetroot. Sharp and mouthwatering.

More animal courses. I cannot comment, but very beautiful to look at. 

The highlight of the meal for me – yes, it looks like a log on a forest floor, aged and subsumed by verdant new growth. Actually the most insanely delicious aubergine/eggplant I have ever encountered.

Palate cleanser. As with all palate cleansers, I would have enjoyed a vat of this.

The first extraordinary dessert – fallen fruit. Apple, poached and caramelised, with the aid of calcium to maintain firmness so it was semi-dried, semi toffee-like, divinely appley, with crisp leaves of filo and fromage blanc. I unsuccessfully attempted to recreate this with calcium carbonate tablets at home (!)

Pistachio, chocolate. Superb ice cream (white chocolate from memory – might be wrong). 

Service was well-informed, prompt and welcoming. A lovely meal, worth the drive and definitely earned those hats.

Breakfast the next morning was also absolutely excellent, with local Grampians sheep’s milk yogurt (fantastic), delicious poached and spiced dried fruit compote, excellent bread, homemade jam etc etc. Exactly as a good hotel breakfast should be. 

It was well worth the drive (which is easy, albeit boring), and I hope the restaurant continues to provide excellent and unique creations.

I will also add that the vegetarian degustation was extremely well-thought-out and a pleasure for me to not feel like an irritation or an afterthought.