Review: Brae is Australia’s Best New Restaurant in Country Victoria

Dan Hunter's Brae has swept the Australian restaurant awards

Brae is the best new restaurant in Australia

 

Dan Hunter’s new restaurant Brae  is on the top of Australia’s best restaurant lists less than 12 months after it opened outside the Victorian country town of Birregurra, 90 minutes southwest of Melbourne.

Brae was named by Australian Gourmet Traveller as Australia’s best new restaurant and best regional restaurant for 2014. It also received three hats and The Good Food Guide’s 2014 restaurant of the year for Victoria.

I reviewed the restaurant when it first opened. Here are my impressions.

Chef Dan Hunter

Dan Hunter is chef owner of Australia's best new restaurantAt the center of it all is country boy Dan Hunter who, with a couple of partners, purchased Australian gourmet trailblazer George Biron’s eponymous country restaurant, vegetable gardens and orchard at Sunnybrae. The 30-acre property in Birregurra, at the fringe of Victoria’s Western District sheep country, is on the back road to Lorne, which is handy for Melbourne folk traveling en route to and from the beach.

When he was chef at the Royal Mail Hotel, Hunter proved that kitchen artistry could lure gourmands from South Yarra and Surry Hills to Victoria’s ‘outback’ town of Dunkeld at the foot of the Grampians. No one seemed to mind that it was a hefty four hours’ drive from Melbourne. By comparison, his new Brae restaurant feels like it is practically in the city’s backyard, a mere 90-minutes from the Westgate Bridge.

I think of Brae as a modern Australian fable: a tale of a jolly jumbuck, a Meta barbie and plans to grow heirloom wheat in the paddock.

What is a jumbuck

But back to the jumbuck, I’d like to ask whether any of you Waltzing Matilda Aussies knows what exactly a jumbuck is. To cut a proverbial ballad short, it is not lamb (which is under 12 months) and it is not mutton (which is one to two years old) but it is a four-plus-year-old sheep with a mouthful of ugly teeth but a heap of flavour on its bone. And there you have it, a whole new cut of meat…dry-aged jumbuck, courtesy of Dan Hunter and his mate Anthony Kumnick from Greenvale Farms. Maître d’ Simon Freeman and a black-clad staff member present this as dish number five of nine: Dry aged jumbuck with grilled lettuce on a Kaiseki-like matt charcoal plate by Melbourne ceramicist Glenn Tebble. An ode to exquisiteness. Yet nothing, especially not here, is as simple as it seems.

Dan Hunter uses aged jumbuck sheep in one of his classic dishes

Photo by Colin Page

The jumbuck’s thick layer of protective fat was first cut away to reveal pure lean meat on the back strap. It is seared first on the barbie then the grill is raised to cook the meat to rare. This is not just any barbie but a Spanish-style adjustable grill surrounded by heat-retaining stone that Dan has installed the courtyard in homage both to the good old Aussie variety and to his head-chef days at the acclaimed Mugaritz restaurant in Spanish Basque country. It sits behind the Alan Scott-designed wood oven, which bakes Brae’s sublime wholemeal sourdough bread that is served with virgin butter…but that’s another story.

The meat is sliced paper thin and mixed with tuna mayonnaise enriched by tarragon, fennel and chives. Cos lettuce is brined and charred quickly on the barbie. Final presentation: the jumbuck, herb and tuna mayo sits on smear of green puree made from broad beans and garden peas, hazelnut and yogurt and then delicately wrapped with the grilled cos. A white puree made from blitzed whole lemons soaked in soy milk is swirled on top and the entire dish is finished with a dusting of oyster powder and a few drops of anchovy water. The sweet and sour, the rich and creamy, the herbaceous and the savory create a tantalzing array of tastes all over your mouth.

The wines

If you elect the matched wines, you’ll discover that a 2011 Apis Cabernet Franc from Henty near Portland, adds yet another earthy note to the dish.

Spend time with the wine list for it offers a magical mystery tour, rather like Dan Hunter’s cooking. Yes, there is a sprinkling of iconic labels from across the world but more interesting are discoveries from artisan winemakers dotted around Victoria…the likes of Mac Forbes and William Downie in the Yarra Valley and Garagiste in the Mornington Peninsula…who tweak the classics or offer under-appreciated varieties in a new light.

The restaurant

A selection of innovative appetizers at Australia's best new restaurant Brae

Photo by Colin Page

The restaurant itself is practically unrecognizable from its earlier incarnation as Sunnybrae’s rustic cottage. The outside is untouched but inside, Melbourne architectural firm Six Degrees has created a minimalist space, with a hint of country in the wainscoting and a dash of Japanese aesthetic in the iron and glass boxes used as waiter stations…a perfect metaphor for Dan Hunter’s cooking. The chairs are Italian, sleek and supremely comfortable. The exquisite organic dishes are created by Made in Japan, Mud and the aforementioned Glenn Tebble.

The dishes

But it is the food that exerts the centrifugal force at Brae. The simple listing of ingredients in each dish is a foil that hides astounding juxtapositions. Not everything works, but standouts are the starter of wallaby and flax, lemon myrtle and wattle (tartare of saltbush wallaby unique to Flinders Island enhanced by intense bush tucker flavours) and the salad of sweet Port Arlington mussels with blue-eye salt-cod cream.

The desserts

But it is the two astounding deserts….watermelon, snow peas, rhubarb and rose and the parsnip and apple…that seal Dan Hunter’s reputation as one of the most inventive chefs working anywhere in Australia.

The verdict

A completely immersive experience that is both intellectual and sensual. This isn’t just a relocated Royal Mail. It is a new adventure with fewer deep pockets but more resourcefulness. The food will evolve with the new locale and it is now much easier for Melbournians to be part of the fun.

Parsnip and apple dessert at Australia's Best New Restaurant Brae

Photo by Colin Page

 

 

 

 

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Brae -38.339352, 143.784702

 

Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

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