Brae Birregurra, in regional Victoria is the newest restaurant by chef Dan Hunter, formerly of Royal Mail in Dunkeld, Victoria and Mugaritz in Spain’s Basque Country. I never had the chance to visit Royal Mail while Dan Hunter was there and, given his pedigree and reputation, I was keen to see what he had created with Brae.
The restaurant, which is located in what was a homestead that formerly housed the restaurant Sunnybrae, is just one part of what is a 30 acre piece of land. The restaurant is very much connected to the land, which is evident from the moment you drive up to the car park and pass the garden which you are free to walk through – Brae’s food is as local and seasonal as it gets, and what Dan Hunter is trying to do here is a natural extension of what he was doing at Royal Mail.
I went to Brae with a group of friends and we were the first to arrive for our Sunday lunch sitting. The inside is modern and very much fits in with Brae’s remote rural setting.
Food wise, it’s a 13 course tasting menu for $180 that’s offered, and there’s the option of matched wines for $120. The wine list is extensive and contains a mixture of local and international wines. We ordered two bottles for the table over the course of our meal and the sommelier was very good at describing some wines that he thought we might enjoy based on the very non-technical way we described what we were looking for – it made the list very accessible. A small range of craft beers and a decent range of spirits are also available.
To begin the meal, a selection of 7 sharing plates were brought out simultaneously. The relaxed setting of Brae came through with the food from the outset, and we were encouraged to eat with our hands and “have fun”.
Salt & Vinegar Potato
These were tasty, as you’d expect salt and vinegar crisps to be.
Beef Tendon & Mountain Pepper
The beef tendon was quite interesting, with a prawn cracker like texture.
Burned Pretzel, Treacle & Pork + Fresh Ricotta & Dried Fig
These were both ok, but not quite as interesting as the other starters.
Prawn, Nasturtium, Finger Lime
The prawn was very tasty, and you would eat the whole thing due to the soft shells. The flesh from the rest of the prawns was wrapped inside the nasturtium leaves, with the tartness of the finger lime balancing nicely against the sweetness of the prawn.
Turnip & Brook Trout Roe
Another tasty dish, with a very “fresh ocean” flavour about it.
Short Fin Eel & Sea Urchin, Zucchini & Chicory
This was one of the highlights – even my friends who aren’t generally into seafood were surprised at how much they enjoyed this dish. Taste and texture wise, it was spot on, with a mixture of creamy and crunchy textures.
Bread & Butter
The sourdough is baked on site in a wood fired oven and as proof that the simplest things are often the best, the bread was delicious. A crunchy, almost caramelised crust and a smoky flavour made for the perfect slice of bread and the butter, which is churned on site had a ricotta, curd like texture to it and was equally delicious.
Calamari & Pickles
Moving onto the main courses, the first dish to come out was the calamari and pickles. This was really tasty and the pickled flavour was very subtle which complimented the calamari nicely.
Tomatoes & Uncommon Leaves, Lemon & Mussel Juice
Thankfully the last of the tomatoes before the arrival of winter were still around as this was a really nice dish. Very simple and it was great to be able to try the different types of tomatoes and really be able to tell the difference between them. The mussel juice enhanced the tomatoes but never overpowered them.
Southern Rock Lobster Cooked With Carrot, White Onion, Sea Butter
The lobster was perfectly creamy and tasty and the sea butter served to enhance this further. Unfortunately the carrots were very overpowering and took away from the other flavours. It just needed to be toned down a notch was the general consensus from the table.
Raw Wallaby, Wattle & Lemon Myrtle, Charred Beetroot & Radicchio
This dish really divided the table. I found it to be quite tasty but some on the table found that the lemon myrtle and radicchio overpowered the other flavours and made it somewhat unpleasant. It probably comes down to one’s tolerance of tangy food.
Wild Mushrooms & Milk Curd, Chicken Live & Chicken Broth
This was definitely the lowlight of the meal – something that everyone on the table agreed upon. The mushrooms were very earthy, as would be expected, however so was everything else which meant that there really wasn’t much going on in the way of flavour with this dish.
Dry Aged Tajima Beef, Leek, Cauliflower, Kale
Thankfully the next dish was brilliant. The thinly sliced beef was tender and full of flavour and the tastes and textures of the other components all worked well together.
Plums Simmered With Onions, Honey, Cultured Milk
This dessert certainly got the table talking. A few were suspicious of the idea of onion being used in a dessert but it really worked with this dish. The key was to eat everything together – individually this dessert did not work at all but get a bit of everything in one mouthful and it was a delicious medley of textures and flavours, sweet and sour.
Parsnip & Apple
Without a doubt this was the highlight of the meal. It was the one time that everyone on our table was silent, and we all came as close as one can in a fine dining restaurant to licking our plates dry. The dessert consisted of dehydrated apple cubes with apple and parsinp custard. The parsnip shell was deep fried and layered on top. Texturally and taste wise, I can safely say that this is one of the best desserts I have ever eaten anywhere. We were all full by this stage, but we all wanted more – we couldn’t stop talking about it.
Pistachio, Blood, Quince
Pigs blood mixed in with eggs formed the filling of these biscuits and while I appreciate the sense of adventure, the flavours really didn’t work with this finale. Especially after the amazing dessert we’d just eaten.
At the end of all of that what then, is my final take on Brae? Disappointed seems like too strong of a word to use, but I suppose it’s the correct word. Dan Hunter has a huge reputation that I had no hesitation in making the 1.5 hour journey out of Melbourne to Brae. This did mean that I had big expectations. The setting is beautiful, the philosophy of the food is something that I am completely on board with and the service was brilliant – professional yet relaxed. It’s fine dining that’s very accessible and the experience itself was very fun. Food wise there were some very high highs but many occasions where the food was merely ok. Normally this isn’t a problem, but when you’re paying $180 and competing against the likes of Attica and Ezard, everything has to be excellent. It felt to me like a test kitchen still finding its feet. All of the ingredients are there for Brae to become one of Australia’s best restaurants – I just think it needs more time to get things right, for the food to the point where every dish matches the highs of what my friends and I ate.
4285 Cape Otway Road
Telephone: (03) 5236 2226
Thu – Sun: Dinner
Fri – Mon: Lunch