Fine dining luxury in Rural Victoria. Bounty from a kitchen garden on a 20-hectare estate. The majestic Mt Sturgeon. Chef, Dan Hunter. The Royal Mail Hotel plates up intelligent food from a serious kitchen in the 'middle of nowhere' – the kind of Dunkeld 'nowhere' both national and international foodies justify as worth the pilgrimage.
Brainchild of multi-millionaire barrister and pastoralist Allan Myers, the Royal Mail Hotel is a prodigious example of a restaurant built on plenty of money; a restaurant that is more like a mountain escape compound complete with hotel rooms and cottages. But hey, we're not complaining.
We want you to meet Chef Hunter. He's a fine dining rockstar. After four years in Spain, two of which were spent heading up one of the world's top restaurants, Maugaritz in the Basque Country, Hunter returned to the motherland and was too experienced and thus 'unemployable'. It was back then, in 2007, the Royal Mail Hotel beckoned.
Now we're going to be upfront about this. The Mail experience is not for everyone. It's not for those with conservative food tastes and it's definitely not for those seeking out a mindless dining experience. The restaurant is more than a three hour drive from Melbourne and the 13 course degustation will set you back $170 a head or $285 with matching wines. But let us say this, everything about this place, in our opinion, is totally worth it: the unrivaled service, best produce, and stunning surrounds.
Enough with the justifications.
We started with rice paper, finger lime and salmon roe. The dish was texturally exciting and offered a balance of sweet and sour. Rainbow trout, coffee, black treacle was next followed by chicken crisp. At this stage we were still indulging in the 1996 Pol Roger Cuvee Reserve, Epernay France.
The pancetta and spanner crab, rye cream and candied radish was a highlight as was the 1996 Crawford River Riesling, Henty Victoria. The delicacy of the nutty cream combined with the richly meaty pancetta and silky crab was hearty, intense in flavour and completely satisfying. The eel and bone marrow, eggplant and pickled vegetables was probably what I was thinking about when I spoke of the Mail not being for those with conservative food tastes. Smoked eel sits atop a heavy bone marrow, alongside pungent eggplant puree. Then there's those miniature pickled vegetables to provide the pop and crunch effect. 2005 Pio Cesare, Barbaresco Italy, has gone down a treat.
Hunter's Fallen Fruit examples his fondness of nature. Bite into the crisp apple, that has been treated with calcium hydroxide, to discover a gooey inside. The almond, caramel and chamomile additions welcomed an extra sweetness to this dessert as did the 1999 Dr Loosen, Mosel Germany. For the dairy intolerant, it's likely the Mail will treat you to a quince macaroon - delectably light and fruity.
So is it worth the trek? Most certainly. Hunter's food is respectful of flavours and textures. The ornate aesthetic of his menu matches perfectly the delicacy ingrained within each dish. His food is clever, attitude persevering, and hospitality unmatched.