Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld

98 Parker Street, Dunkeld, Victoria

My mother and father made me the person I am. Their love of food, excellent home cooking, an introduction to good dining at an early age, and the idea that quality time spent together involves a 3 hour meal and 2 bottles of wine. As I’ve grown my culinary tastes and interests have got broader that means that eating out is as much about discovery as it is symbolic of a great time.

My father’s trip to Australia presented an opportunity for such a visit to restaurant that’s been on my radar for a while. We were on a roadtrip from Melbourne to Adelaide and I was keen to sneek a visit to The Grampians to spend a night at The Royal Mail Hotel, a winner of several dining accolades and a place fast becoming a pilgrimage for many gourmands. It’s recent attention has meant that it’s now booked up 5 months at weekends. But a visit on a Tuesday night at the end of November was not problematic.

Although 3 hours out of Melbourne, it’s location 45mins from The Grampians means it’s a great place for some dramatic sights and walking. The perfect excuse itself to visit. Not that you need it, since the hotel is regarded for its local approach to food. Almost all food is sourced within a few miles and seasonality is the order of the day here with almost all fruit and vegetables grown in the gardens that surround the hotel.

The hotel itself has great retro feel with the rooms themselves well decorated in a modern and comfortable way, lots of blonde wood and a natural feel, keeping with the environment. Outside of the rooms, there are views that lead up to a wide lawn and entry into the restaurant.

The dining area is divided into a bistro and a fine dining restaurant. We’re of course here for the fine dining. There are only 10 or so tables, widely spaced, next to the window overlooking the street. The room does not lack for light and it’s a place to take your time without evidence of stuffiness.

We take our seats for the 10 course tasting menu.

We get things started with some bread, locally churned butter and the peruse of a very expansive wine list. I’m not someone to get excited about wine lists. They can often be challenging, but there’s great variety here, especially local vineyards. It is also exceptionally reasonable with many wines priced from $30. It’s a list as much about discovery as it is about making a profit. Not often something you see.

There is no amuse, just a leap into the journey with: sea salad, lemon and lychee

The mention of lychee makes me wary. It’s not an ingredient to get excited about, but it thankfully doesn’t make much of a showing in a dish which wows with a taste of the sea. There’s a pleasing saltiness amplified by much under-rated samphire on a bed of squid. It’s a fresh introduction to the meal and displays a thought-provoking approach to composition, an understated approach to complexity and good use of ingredients.

This is followed up (after some wait) with: jerusalem artichoke, triple cream cheese and chive

It’s as simple as it gets. A dish which is all about quality of ingredients – a baked artichoke, with cream to add a sense of indulgence and a spring onion for texture. It’s easy to be a little underwhelmed, but the taste wins you over. It’s smokey, smooth and satisfying.

We follow with: egg yolk, toasted rye, legumes, yeast

This is already a famed dish – a sous vide fully formed egg yolk served on top of dried wheat & vegetables. Again an understated dish which elicited quite excited responses. Who doesn’t love egg yolk (?) and it combines excellently with the vegetables to produce something gooey, nutty and fun.

Thinks start getting a little serious with john dory, burnt celeriac, mustard, nashi

As little as possible is done to the ingredients with lightly poached dory that retains some gelatinous fibres, complimented with singed celeriac. It was a good combination, but relatively neutral flavour-wise.

Flavour makes a big comeback with a beautiful dish of asparagus, kohlrabi, duck ham, spring blossoms

A picture of spring on a plate that really leverages the seasonal vegetables. I can take or leave the kohlrabi, but the rest of the dish sang with freshness due to flowers and vegetables picked a matter of hours ago from the garden metres away. It was bought together by a lovely duck consomme. It managed to perfectly combine meat and vegetables in a very satisfying way.

Which brings us to: globe artichoke as pork, pea and parsley

A transition dish. Just because the restaurant is all about excellence from the garden doesn’t mean that meat can’t feature in a big way. This brings the two together with a sous vide artichoke cooked in pork broth served classically with peas and on a piece of pork belly. It’s a dish to delight in and will obviously convert the most extreme carnivores. It’s beautiful – sweet and savoury. The pork just amplifies the vegetables and it’s lovely.

The main course is lamb, eggplant in white miso, pine nut, chlorophyll

We see a continuation of a trend here with singed eggplant which amplifies it’s smokiness coupled with a fine fillet of lamb. I’m not exactly wowed by the chlorophyll. It just tastes of ‘green’ and a touch artificial. However it doesn’t detract too much from a satisfying dish that brings to a close the savoury part of the meal.

Gratifyingly there’s no twee palate cleanser and we’re served rhubarb, licorice, almond, citrus

The rhubarb has been cooked sous-vide, but still retains good textural consistency and it fibers. It requires a knife and fork. The glaze is sweet and has a pleasing intensity, which doesn’t overpower. It’s served at room temperature and is a pleasant dish to work through.

The ice cream course is next – banana in szechuan pepper, coconut and cocoa ice

Bizarrely we have a dessert wine with this that clashes with the coldness, but as a dish it’s thought-provoking if not a dish to get excited about. The cocoa dust I can take or leave, but there’s a nice heat from the pepper that lifts the ice cream and makes the banana sing (just a little).

The final course of the meal is pistachio cake with hazelnut, honeycomb, chocolate

It’s a lovely moreish cake and ends the meal on a  high. The nuttiness is lovely and the cake beautifully moist. The chocolate doesn’t overpower and it all adds up to a lovely plate of food to finish on.

We are sated without feeling bloated. It’s a good place to be. We end the meal with coffee that is accompanied by strawberries from the garden with chocolate soil.

This last treat serves as a pointed reminder of what we’ve experienced – the freshest and most wholesome of ingredients served with cutting edge culinary methods. The strawberries are hearteningly imperfect and sweet. The soil is of course compulsive eating.

This was a meal that I was glad to make an effort to have. The seasonality and confidence of cooking makes it a rare restaurant. I was expecting more wow moments and fireworks, but was not disappointed. On reflection this is a place that really let’s the ingredients do the talking (a tiresome cliche) and that the culinary skill admirably only serves to amplify the taste. There is also a sense of progress in the cooking and it’s clear that the food will continue to evolve around the seasons and making the most of natural flavour. So it will pay to keep my eye on The Royal Mail and return whenever that may be.


One Response to “Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld”

  1. Reemski Says:

    Oh, I would LOVE to go to the Royal Mail. But alas, my partner in life is an unadventurous eater, so no meals like this for me except rarely.

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