Brae has only just opened its doors in Birregurra but it’s already attracted world wide attention. That’s because Brae is chef Dan Hunter’s first solo venture after leaving the Royal Mail in Dunkeld. Hunter has always cooked with a sense of place and this is a restaurant which is very much shaped by its setting in a remote old homestead. Hunter has gutted the house which once housed the much loved Sunnybrae and transformed it into something much more modern and slick inside. Dark grey tones highlight the garden views through the windows and makes the space much lighter, although perhaps a little of Sunnybrae’s charm and character has been lost in the transformation.
The constant is the fabulous kitchen garden. The menu champions local and native ingredients and is drawn as much as possible from Brae’s surrounding gardens which were established over many years by Sunnybrae’s George Biron. From this, Hunter has created a thirteen course set degustation menu. It’s ambitious, but the length of time over which all the dishes were served meant the sheer volume of food was not over whelming.
Hunter’s food isn’t rich or overworked and the plates of food look almost austere and a little lacking in “wow” factor. To start sourdough and butter both made in house. The sourdough has a great thick crust and the creamy butter is a whole world away from its mass produced relative. Then to go with our Jacquart Mesnil champagne ($28) there are puffed rice crackers flavoured with beef and native pepperberry. They’re addictivley good and ideal drinking food. Next comes tender spears of asparagus, sprinkled with moreish dust made from prawns and a crisp “burnt pretzel” which is probably best described as a blackened piece of pork crackling.
The highs at Brae are very high. I can’t stop thinking about the salt grass lamb cooked only to a blush pink, sliced into wafer thin slivers and served with slightly smoky grilled lettuce. The effect is mesmeric, the tastes and textures unlike anything else.
Hunter also impresses with pearly rock lobster concealed beneath a pair of leaves and doused with lashings of “sea butter”. I also loved the nod to the current mania for all things pickled in teaming curls of almost translucent calamari with tangy pickles. Melt in the mouth short rib was a treat with meaty local shiitake mushrooms topped with finger limes and strands of rock samphire.
But there were also some misses. A starter of slivers of raw wallaby, finely diced and flavoured with lemon myrtle and wattle was dominated by the dry flax seed biscuit it was served on while the charred radicchio and duck offal was just too barnyardy in flavour to be pleasant.
A dessert of compressed watermelon and rhubarb with a snow pea puree was refreshing but not revolutionary. An improvement on the theme of vegetables and fruit pairing was in the dessert simply named “apple and parsnip”. Cubes of dehydrated apple and a crisp shell of roasted parsnip tasted in combination exactly like an apple pie. Confronting but familiar all at the same time.
Service was down to earth but knowledgeable and professional. In particular I really enjoyed the explanations of the different wines available with some really interesting wines offered by the glass. There were a few slips like wine being poured for us which we did not order and coffee arriving which was meant for another table but I assume once the restaurant settles down these issues will be ironed out.
My meal at Brae was challenging and thought provoking rather than comfortable. It’s great to see Hunter championing local and distinctively Australian food but the food lacked the wow factor of places like Attica and The Fat Duck. Big comparisons I know, but these are the sort of restaurants that Brae’s prices set it against. My meal was interesting and impressive but it didn’t have the magic that the best fine dining delivers.
Details: Brae, 4285 Cape Otway Rd, Birregurra, Victoria (Ph +61 3 5236 2226)
Damage: Budget breaking. The set menu is $180 a head. Our bill came to over $500 for two.