How far are you willing to travel for a good feed? The Smith team has planned holidays to Shanghai in search of xiao long bao soup dumplings and lost countless hours in Ho Chi Minh alleyways hunting bánh xèo pancakes. We also think nothing of making a six-hour round-trip for dinner, recently setting out for Royal Mail Hotel, a gourmet escape in the Grampians, three hours west of Melbourne.
Touting three chef’s hats (the local equivalent of Michelin stars), the Royal Mail is regarded as one of Australia’s best restaurants, with a months-long waiting list to prove it. Manning the pans is Dan Hunter (pictured below), one-time head chef of acclaimed San Sebastián restaurant Mugaritz, and Chef of the Year in The Age Good Food Guide Awards for 2012. That’s serious business down under.
For menu dawdlers like us, the dining options at Royal Mail are blissfully straightforward: omnivore or vegetarian menu, with or without matching wines. What follows is 10 sublime courses, crafted using herbs, flowers, fruit and vegetables from Hunter’s kitchen garden, and seafood, eel, duck and beef from Victoria’s best producers.
To start, it’s a glass of champagne and a series of playful tastes, including feather-light rice-paper crackers with salmon roe and bursts of finger lime, wicked pork belly and brioche sandwiches, and one of the naughtiest snacks we’ve ever encountered: fried chicken skin, sprinkled with seaweed.
Other standouts in a meal that spans three-and-a-half hours include a rainbow-hued heirloom carrot salad with garlic cream, an earthy jumble of new potatoes, gooey duck-egg yolk and crispy fish skin, and unctuous bone marrow with eel, radishes and smoky eggplant (pictured left).
After polishing off two desserts, including a decadent chocolate, pistachio and honeycomb dish (pictured right), we stagger back to our Deluxe Mountain View room and flop onto the king-size bed. The pick of the bunch, these refurbished rooms feature contemporary, uncluttered interiors, a minibar loaded with local mineral waters and wine, floor-to-ceiling windows and a private deck overlooking the Grampians Mountains.
A deep, food-induced sleep follows, before we rise and are ready to eat again. Back in the hotel restaurant, we savour muesli with sheep’s milk yoghurt and poached fruit, and a near-incendiary croissant (take note of the sign that says NOT to toast them), before undoing our top button and tackling the drive home. Worth the trip? Absolutely.