How far can Brae go? In 2015, less than 18 months after opening, the Victorian restaurant pulled into 87th place on the World’s 50 Best list. A year later, it jumped to 65. In April this year it cracked the top 50, coming in at 44. Who knows what might happen next year?
Chef Dan Hunter has strong pedigree. Before Brae, he turned The Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld into Australia’s best regional restaurant. From 2005 to 2007 he cooked at Mugaritz in Spain, including a year as head chef. During his tenure, the restaurant entered the top 50 for the first time in its then eight-year history. It hasn’t dropped below tenth place since.
The multi-course degustation or “tasting menu” dominates in this elite group of 50. It makes sense. There’s no better way for a team of chefs and waiters to show off their skills than more than a few dozen courses that last, collectively, for several hours.
Brae goes one further and backs it up with breakfast the next day, if you so choose. That’s helpful considering the restaurant is in Birregurra, a small town 90 minutes’ west of Melbourne.
Degustations aren’t for everyone. They’re long, expensive and the flavours can be challenging. Interruptions are frequent, given the number of courses. These things are all true of Brae, but none of them are felt as acutely as at other restaurants of this ilk.
Yes, a meal takes several hours. But it feels more like a long, relaxed Christmas lunch than a carefully orchestrated performance you need to sit up and pay attention to (though you absolutely will).
Yes, it costs $220 per head, or $350 with matched wines. But it’s also cheaper than Attica or Quay, the other Australian restaurants in the 50 Best. And it’s outstanding value when you take a tour of the huge gardens and see how much work goes into planting, growing, picking, preparing and plating each dish.
Yes, your palate might get one or two shocks. But on the whole, Brae strikes a sensible balance between innovative and familiar.
Take its famous Iced Oyster. Imagine an oyster shell filled with oyster-flavoured soft-serve and you have a pretty good idea of it. The small serving takes at least 12 hours to prepare, and includes heating milk and oyster water to precisely 25 degrees, 40 degrees, and 85 degrees, all the while adding various sugars and stabilisers. Whole oysters and sea lettuce are dehydrated over 12 hours, blitzed into a powder and sprinkled over the surface of the ice-cream to add a vibrant, mossy patina. The shell arrives at the table atop a group of smooth sea stones.
At the end of this prolonged effort is a dish that’s simple to look at, taste and explain. It doesn’t ask much of the guest, in spite of its technical preparation. If you’ve tasted oysters, you’ve tasted this – though Brae’s version is more intense, more nuanced, more fun.
The same can be said of the smoked eel doughnut. It looks like an everyday churro, but there’s some trickery involving eel paste and mashed potatoes mixed into the choux pastry before it’s piped into the pan and fried. Again, the dish doesn’t ask much – who doesn’t love doughnuts? – but it has a pungent, moreish character that a street-side vendor could only dream of.
Another dish: barbequed prawn heads and nasturtium-leaf parcels of raw prawn meat dabbed with zingy pearls of finger lime. Much as American barbeque popularised B-grade cuts such as brisket, Hunter wants to improve the standing of prawn heads, which most of us think of as waste. He makes a strong case for their worth, though squeamish guests might disagree.
These three dishes are about as challenging as Brae gets. Which is to say, not much. Even at their most technical, the dishes have a simple, comforting aspect that speaks to the pastoral surrounds.
Mal’s Beans Get Their Moment is little more than beans picked at exactly the right time and served in a light broth. (Hunter talks of changes in the garden not season-by-season or even month-by-month, but week-by-week.)
Summer Garden Tarte Tatin is garden tomatoes and local honey caramelised into a sweet, sticky slab. It’s served alongside salty pork charcuterie, a pairing that’s as perfect as it is surprising.
Dessert starts with another of Hunter’s famous and more technical dishes: a deep-fried parsnip husk glued to the plate with apple-and-parsnip mousse and dusted with freeze-dried apple snow. Hunter had played around with the parsnip dish before, but only perfected it the night before the restaurant opened, in an act of desperation. It’s much, much more delicious than it sounds on paper. So much so that some guests come to Brae only to taste it, Hunter says.
Depending on when you visit, the other dessert dish could be mulberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries served straight from the garden. Apart from being best berries you’ll ever taste, they highlight Hunter’s willingness to step aside and let nature do the cooking, where appropriate.
It’s touches like this that bring Brae back to earth and make it feel less like a restaurant than a visit to your close friends’ country house, just as Hunter and his partner Julianne Bagnato intend. The option to stay overnight is another part of that.
Attica hangs its hat on native ingredients, but Brae evokes Australia in a subtler way. To return to the idea of the long, leisurely Christmas lunch: though the meal includes more than a dozen courses, oftentimes you’ll be delivered several at the same time, to graze on at your own pace. It’s reminiscent of the typical holiday feast, with its rounds of fresh seafood, meat and veggies, and desserts.
The difference being, of course, that your uncle Jim and aunt Mary don’t have a well-tended kitchen garden, a dehydrator in their kitchen and a cellar full of 20-year-old sakes, obscure wines from the Canary Islands, or even Best’s Great Western 2005 pinot meunier, produced two hours away in the Grampians.
Nick Connellan dined at Brae as a guest of Phaidon, publisher of the upcoming Brae, a recipe book by Dan Hunter. It will be released on May 1, 2017.