Hi, my name is Catherine and I will travel for good food. When George Biron and Diane Garrett, co-owners of Sunnybrae, decided to let go of their hatted restaurant, word eventually spread that it had transitioned into the safe hands of Dan Hunter after his departure from Royal Mail Hotel, one of Australia's top rated restaurants. We took the opportunity to use Mr A's birthday as an excuse to visit which also happened to coincide with the blistering heatwave that Melbourne was enduring. We had the air conditioning blasting and some St ALi bottled iced lattes in hand, so we were ready to take on the long road trip.
We were the first diners to arrive for the evening and entered into the calm, serene setting of the new restaurant. The interior has since been spruced up from its former identity and lucky for us, we were seated in prime position to look through into the action of the kitchen.
The degustation menu ($180 per person) at Brae is made up of thirteen courses and we were left to peruse the menu. Heavily geared towards ultilising local, home-grown and organic produce, the dishes reflected the philosophy of Dan Hunter.
While I wouldn't recommend it, we had decided not to book accommodation for that night so we weren't able to indulge in the matched wines and settled with a glass of wine each. They do offer matched wines for an additional $120 per person.
Similar to Dan Hunter's former restaurant, we were started off with the smaller sized dishes. Crisp and utterly fluffy, the beef tendon cracker was sprinkled with ground mountain pepper and had a creamy, gelatinous texture after it melting in the mouth.
With the next trio of starters, my absolute favourite was the chopped prawns wrapped in nasturtium leaves - fresh and sweet against the fragrant, citrus caviar. The burnt pretzel stick had a caramelised, savoury flavour to it and while I enjoyed the wallaby tartare with the lemon myrtle, I found that the flax cracker overwhelmed the wallaby with its nutty flavour and texture.
Our waiter was appropriately passionate about their bread made in their outdoor wood-fire oven. The crusty sour dough bread went beautifully with the salty and sour, curd-like butter; the cream sourced locally and then churned in-house.
A great start to the more substantial dishes was the tender calamari and the assortment of pickled cucumbers, turnip and herbs, providing a tangy zing against the silky, sweet calamari.
The sea urchin and short fin eel were a medley of flavours from the ocean, highlighted by the thin slivers of zucchini and macadamia cream. My only gripe was the peculiar firm, sponge-like texture of the sea urchin; a stark contrast to the melting sea urchin.
One of the highlights of the meal for me was the juicy lobster cooked in sea butter. The robust sea butter intensified the sweetness of the lobster and showcased the shellfish beautifully.
If you grew up in Australia, you may recall singing "Waltzing Maltilda" which references a swagman catching a jumbuck drinking water down by the billabong. Ironically, it was only at Brae where we realised that we had been singing about a young sheep (I was that kid making up lyrics and mumbling in the background). The jumbuck was coated in a luscious herbed mayonnaise with hints of anchovy and underneath it all, char-grilled lettuce and broad bean puree made up the rest of this flavoursome dish.
While the next dish may have overwhelmed some at that stage of the meal, Mr A and I were completely smitten. The charred raddichio lent a smoky, bitterness to the velvety offal, and the crumbled dehydrated mandarin zest provided some relief to the taste buds from the decadent flavours.
The grass fed wagyu was so tender that the provided sharp steak knife was of no use. The quality of the meat shone through, complemented by raw shiitake mushrooms and salted radish.
The first of the dessert courses started with discs of watermelon with native quandong berries, rhubarb and rosewater granita and a sweet pea sauce. It was my least favourite course of the night as it just didn't seem to hit the right notes and the flavours were too tart for my taste buds.
The next dessert, however thoroughly made up for my disappointment, with a delightful finale comprising of parsnip and apple. After slow roasting the parsnip, the innards were scraped out to make up the apple and parsnip custard filling, and the remaining shell was deep fried to a crisp. Alongside the dehydrated apples, Dan Hunter managed to execute an exquisite twist of the classic apple pie. To emphasize how good the dessert was, Mr A ended up demolishing his serving and then went on to finish the rest of mine (sadly, I was much too full to savour more than a bite - damn you, incompetent stomach!).
With our meal coming to an end, we were presented with a sweet bite to enjoy with tea. The 'blood biscuit' was made by incorporating pig's blood into the whipped egg yolks, to impart a savouriness to the short biscuit, topped with beetroot paste and berries.
To accompany the last bite, the Black Mitcham peppermint in my tea had been freshly picked that morning personally by our waitress. After three minutes of infusing in hot water, it made me feel a lot lighter and fresh after such a heavy meal.
The service and detailed explanations provided from the manager were superb, although we felt that it was slightly let down when the same was not reflected by other wait staff unless we questioned them about the processes of each dish. It wasn't a major issue however, we would have appreciated understanding more about each course, rather than simply stating the elements.
Dan Hunter has brought his magic touch to Birregurra and shown a refined and restrained style in the dishes while making the most of locally sourced and native produce, picked up from his days at two Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain, Mugaritz. Not to mention, I'm quietly pleased that Dan Hunter's exquisite dining experience is so much more accessible than before. Eight hours and over 300 kms later, we were happy to say that it was emphatically worth our time and efforts.
Will I return? Yes, although the distance and cost will make visits reserved for very special occasions.
4285 Cape Otway Rd
Birregurra VIC 3242
(03) 5236 2276
Lunch: Fri to Mon 12pm onwards
Dinner: Thurs to Sun 6:30pm onwards