Spanish chefs have been at the forefront of a gastronomic revolution in past decade or two. Ferran Adria’s El Bulli restaurant in northern Spain led the charge, bringing new scientific processes to cooking to create mind-blowingly inventive flavour and texture combinations such as “sardines on toast” ice cream, bacon foam, seaweed gels and other oddities. There may have been a mis-step or three along the way, but there is no denying than the Spanish new wave has captured the food world’s imagination in a very deep way. For ordinary mortals, you would have more chance of marrying the Pope than ever scoring a table at El Bulli.
But Adria has not been the only avant-garde Spanish chef of note. Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz took note of the new techniques but also respected the produce at the heart of all food. With a strong focus on kitchen garden produce and top quality ingredients (and yes, lots of pretty flowers) he uses new methods not for their own sake, but to enhance the dining experience without making the diner feel like he is eating on the moon. To some, Mugaritz is even better than El Bulli because of this philosophy, and it has been voted repeatedly one of the top ten restaurants in the world by Restaurant magazine.
Why such a detour into modern Spanish food when I’m meant to be writing about a restaurant in the tiny Victorian country town of Dunkeld? Well it’s chef, Dan Hunter, was head pan-rattler at Mugaritz for two years before being lured back to Australia to set up the Royal Mail Hotel restaurant. This was a coup for its owners that, quite literally, put Dunkeld on the map: it is now truly a foodie destination that should rank up there with El Bulli and Mugaritz. The Royal Mail Hotel restaurant has won Australian Gourmet Traveller’s Country Restaurant of the Year award for two years running, and we could definitely see why when we dined there. It’s hard to conceive how I will ever eat a better meal again – unless I go back there for the new season’s menu, of course!
The only slightly sour note, for now anyway, is that the dining room itself is somewhat lacking in ambience. It’s not separated completely from the other dining area, and the tables are arranged as if we’re all watching a show, except there is no centrepiece to focus on (the kitchen is off to one side). We felt quite exposed when first shown to our table, though happily we did have a side view of the kitchen and its artists meticulously tweezing their creations into place. Fortunately this feeling subsided after a while, but later conversations with staff confirmed that plans are afoot to redesign the room to make it more special.
Before launching into the food itself, a comment on the wine list. It is legendary, running to over 8000 bottles listed on more than 70 pages. Picking the matched wine option is a no-brainer, though here they have two different levels of wine matches (at different price points). This is an excellent idea which I would love to see copied widely, as it allows you to tailor the experience to your palate (and your wallet!). We opted for one of each level to give even more wine variety, and sommelier Jeremy’s choices were truly inspired. It was fascinating for me to compare the very good (and often aged) Australian wines in the lesser bracket with the superb (usually French) versions in the prestige list.
So to the food, with wine matches listed below:
To start: a glass each of Philipponat reserve rose champagne – the same for both wine series because it’s very good.
Sardine, jamon, radish, smoked bonito – two small fillets of sardines with the other ingredients in small quanitities, the broth it comes in poured simultaneously by two waiters at our table. A great theatrical touch. Both wines series featured the same Sanchez Romate palo cortado sherry from Spain.
Sugar snap pea, soured milk, spearmint, sashimi – a small mound of delicately crunchy peas with miniscule spearmint leaves carefully placed throughout, on the other side of the plate a white smear of soured milk beneath a few dark red slices of sashimi. Kristen asked at one stage what I thought the sashimi was, and I assumed it was a high quality tuna. But I was wrong: after we’d finished a waiter asked us what we thought the sashimi was. It turned out to be watermelon somehow modified to give it a chewy texture, yet in hindsight it did have a distinct watermelon flavour. This was the first “wow” dish that really got us thinking about what was to come! The local wine match was 2009 Grosset Semillon/sauvignon blanc; the French version 2006 Lucien Crochet ‘La Chene Marchand’ from Sancerre. The same grape varieties, but much more minerality and depth in the French wine.
Egg yolk, toasted rye, asparagus, yeast – a crunchy dish with the egg yolk intact on arrival, but of course it spreads throughout the dish once you start eating. Rich, creamy, eggy, bready, crunchy, delicious. The local wine was 1997 Best’s chardonnay, the French version 2001 Leroy ‘Auxey-Duresses’ white burgundy.
Pork and prawn, artichoke, fennel, rocket – a more ‘conventional’dish rich in flavour, each element perfectly in place. Served with 2003 Crawford River Riesling (local) or 2006 Domaine Ostertag ‘Muenchberg’ Riesling. This was my first ever grand cru Riesling and it was spectacular: musky, oily, and a top match. We both raved about this dish to our waiters when the plates were cleared, and their professionally deferential attitude started to soften. We even began to get some top ups of our glasses, especially of that divine Alsace riesling :-D
Yellowfin tuna, onions, nori, garlic – a magically cooked cylinder tuna with a glassy texture, even all through apart from a faint browning on the outside. Back to the chardonnays with this.
Eel, beef tendon, kohl rabi, potato – another cracker. Beef tendon is found in Chinese cookery but I doubt it’s ever as gelatinously perfect as this dish. Kristen found it hard to get her mind around the idea but I suspended thought and just focussed on the rich flavour and sticky texture. The tiny balls of potato were brilliant. Served with 2008 Dehasa Gago tempranillo (lesser level) or 2006 Acustic celler ‘brao’ Grenache/carignan from Spain (prestige)
Pigeon, beetroot, white chocolate, rose – one of the top three dishes of the night for me, the moist and rare sliced pigeon breast an inspired match to the white chocolate crumbs underneath, the beetroot giving a pleasing sweet offset. Served with 2005 Best’s pinot meuniere (a rare drop as a still table wine, and excellent too) or 1999 Laurent ‘Beane vielles vignes’ 1er cru from Burgundy. Nice top-ups of both these wines as we took a long time to eat this dish ;-)
Apple, triple cream, chamomile, caramel – I don’t really remember this in detail, but surely it was grand. Served with Primitivo Quiles moscatel from Spain (lesser level) or 2007 Jaboulet muscat beames de venise from the Rhone Valley. The Jaboulet was much lighter than I expect from this style of wine, and I was pleased that Jeremy confirmed it was an unusual example.
Rhubarb, liquorice, almond, citrus – the only dish that didn’t seem to match up to the standards of the other courses, though it served its purpose as a palate cleanser as it was decidedly tart. No wine served with this – a good call.
Pistachio, hazelnut, honeycomb, chocolate – some arcane magic managed to put more pistachio flavour into every morsel than seems humanly possible. We were melting at the table over this one, barely noticing this fine Sanchez Romate cream sherry served with both. A brilliant send off.
The menu changes seasonally at The Royal Mail, and if I had the budget I’d like to eat here four times a year. Of course it is seriously expensive food (and wine), and that’s before you consider the cost of actually getting here. But it’s worth it.