We like to eat out — and we do our fair share of it — but we don't like the idea of writing "reviews" (of any kind) on our blog. Sometimes we have a wonderful food experience at a restaurant and we may write about it. This is one of them.
Without a car, the only way to get here was to take the 7:22am train to Birregurra from Melbourne. Walking out of the station a little after 9, the autumn air felt crisp and cool. I walked the road to Main street, my ears automatically tuning in to the distinct chirping of birds -- sounds I’m not used to hearing in the city. The scene: pastoral -- cows grazing on the fields, sparse vegetation, the air fresh.
Birregurra General Store, on Main street, is a motley gathering of locals -- elderly members of the bike club enjoying their post-ride cuppas, young parents, teenagers, crossfitters. Locally roasted Kazbah coffee, roasted by Joe, literally a couple of doors away, is excellent. I spent my time appropriately, relatively in context, reading the very engaging, very dumbed-down bestseller The Rosie Project.
And then it was time. I walked the roughly 2.5 kilometers to the restaurant, on Birregura road, at a leisurely pace. At this time the sun was playing hide-and-seek with heavy laden clouds; for a few minutes I had to duck under a tree to escape the drizzle. The road forks, and I took Cape Otway road. Seeing the sign to the restaurant was reassuring -- I wasn’t on a wrong path, and I was going to eat lunch after all.
The appropriately staid dining room, nestled in the middle of the property, belies the magic happening in the kitchen, perhaps just as appropriately. Lunch started with a few small bites of salt and vinegar potato, burnt pretzel with treacle and pork, hapuku and crisp skin. This was followed by another set of small bites: Otway shiitake, eggplant and white miso; Iced oyster, which was really an ice-cream made with oysters (delicious!); light and airy beef tendon and mountain pepper; breakfast radish and rich jersey cream. A last set of small plates included cucumber and lemon myrtle; turnip and brook trout; prawn, nasturtium and finger lime -- the prawn was extremely juicy on the inside, crunchy on the outside.
The first course to arrive was tomatoes and mussels gently braised in sea butter. This was excellent! The sea butter was butter made using stock from the same mussels. Since this was almost end of summer, the tomatoes were at their peak, bursting with flavor.
Unlike many places, Bread is not an afterthought here. It’s what’s fired into the wood-burning brick oven first thing every morning, and it’s one of the most remarkable things to eat here. It seems like a wholly appropriate start to the kitchen day. The whole-wheat sourdough, made using a combination of stone-ground biodynamic whole-wheat and white flour, both sourced from Wholegrain Milling in Gunnedah, has a dark hard crust, malty and lightly caramelly, a soft dark interior, less chewy than you might expect, but in a good way, with a slight tang. Combined with the homemade lightly churned butter from rich Jersey milk it’s hard to separate which is meant to be a vehicle for the other.
The crayfish and burnt potatoes, with flathead roe and mustard, came hidden under a silky layer of milk skin. Earthy and milky, with mild flavors, I was hoping the dish was served tepid instead of at room temperature.
Calamari and fermented celeriac with grilled peas and beef fat was an unassuming stunner -- earthy, sweet and smoky.
Like every other dish, the “warm ricotta and nettle with roasted chicken and brassicas” doesn’t give you the slightest hint as to what image you might conjure up with that description. The crisped chicken skins, ricotta and nettles, in a light broth, form a perfectly harmonious mélange growing out of the accentuated flavors of each constituent.
You are served the “barbecued wallaby, not barbecued” with explicit instructions to contemplate its curiosity. Having partaken in the eating, perhaps not so much on the contemplation, the secret is then revealed to you: it’s finely chopped raw wallaby encased in charred radicchio, alongside a charred beetroot-based sauce. Delicious.
The meal hits a high note with the aged peking duck, wood roasted on the bone. It’s served with the stewed fruit of quandong, a native species with a very tart fruit; along with dried liver, and nasturtium blossoms. I thought this was an incredibly balanced dish, the tartness of the quandong playing well with the gamey duck, and the dried liver bringing some earthy notes, muting the bite from the nasturtium blossoms and stems.
How do you make parsnip taste more like parsnip? Leave it to Dan’s dessert of crisp parsnip skin over an apple and parsnip mousse. Instead of being merely sweet, this was intensely flavorful, with the freeze-dried and grated freeze-dried apples providing textural variety.
This is a restaurant in the old-style, seemingly atavistic, where a question of “is the chef in today?” might elicit a bewildered response of “of course the chef is in.” Dan Hunter is very much aware of what’s going on with his contemporaries cityside, but he likes being here in the quiet, amongst his plants, cooking simply, with precision.
Resolutely local, most wines are Australian, many of them produced/grown not too far from the restaurant. They jokingly, but more likely half seriously, have a Tasmanian wine listed under “imported”.
Walking around the garden -- amongst squashes, end of summer tomatoes, nasturtiums, rosemary, peaches, apples, various brassicas, chicken coops -- it was an immersive experience. Laying in the grass amongst these plants, in nature, made me very happy. It’s a far cry from the constantly scheming world outside.
Everything about Brae is a taunt to our everyday lives where we have swiftly made room for ersatz versions of everything in our homes.