TOP 100 QUEST: BRAE, Birregurra VIC
Once again, a regional restaurant that is worth driving to the middle of nowhere for. You’ll find Brae at Birregurra, about an hour drive north west of Geelong in Victoria. Set on 30 acres, with its own organic produce garden, you drive up past the original old brick house to the restaurant structure that was built around 30 years ago. I think Dan Hunter’s food is even better now than it was at Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel. It’s clever and inventive with a few surprises along the way.
With a strong commitment to local, ethical and sustainable produce, Dan’s tasting menu starts with a number of ‘snacks’, each one a perfect blend of flavour and composition. All good, but the outstanding one for me was the Iced Oyster – this was something really different. Apologies for ruining the surprise if you end up going, but in those oyster shells you’re expecting there to be an oyster somewhere. Nope… no oyster anywhere to be found, no matter how much you dig around with your teaspoon. You taste the unmistakable oyster flavour but what you’re eating is an amazing ‘oyster ice cream’. They take the brine from the oysters, make a neutral milk icecream with it, fill the oyster shell and top it with dried oyster powder and seaweed. Fantastic! Dish of the day for me.
Moving on to the ‘real’ courses in order: crayfish, calamari, chicken, wallaby, duck and then desserts. I loved the calamari with fermented celeriac, grilled peas and beef fat – an interesting combination of flavours and textures. The celeriac on its own did nothing for me, but mix it with everything else… brilliant! The wallaby dish is called ‘Barbecued wallaby not barbecued’ and the challenge is that you have to work out why (I won’t give this one away). The duck was beautifully pink with crispy, crispy skin, and although I don’t have a sweet tooth, I did enjoy the parsnip and apple where the parsnip sits on the plate resembling a pastry cone.
If you are sitting at the right table, you can see into the glass-windowed kitchen and watch Dan and his team hard at work. What makes the Brae experience really special, apart from the food, is the attention to detail every step of the way. Two people appearing at your table to deliver your dishes at the same time adds to the theatre, and the wait staff are so well trained, they know exactly how each dish is made right down to the techniques that were used to create the various elements on the plate. When asked, they were able to tell me exactly how the burnt pretzels were made and flavoured (no, they’re not really burnt), as well as knowing the ingredients that make up the iced oyster – and they didn’t even have to go to the kitchen to ask. Very impressive.
This place is so worthy of Top 100 status and its number 5 position. Yes, it’s quite a hike to get there, but it’s well worth it.