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Chefs + Restaurants

First Taste: Royal Mail Hotel

Royal Mail Hotel

One of my abiding memories of visiting the Fat Duck is seeing young stagiaires in their white jackets scurrying around the streets of Bray, ferrying hotel pans of goodness-knows-what to goodness-knows-where. Dunkeld, deep in sheep country in the Australian state of Victoria, isn’t Bray. A good three hours’ drive west of Melbourne, it’s a tiny one-pub town of only 450 souls, and the Thames is nowhere to be seen. Yet the sight of staff ferrying goods across the street brings about a sense of déjà vu. Only here, it’s not food they’re carrying but wine. The town is the unlikely repository for what is probably Australia’s best cellar, and located in the Royal Mail Hotel, its modern-looking pub, is the unlikely theater for its enjoyment. Alan Myers, QC, the pub’s owner, a Dunkeld boy made good, has invested heavily in the town—not least through this establishment and its vinous treasures. What makes it really exciting, though, is that after years of whispered adulation in wine circles, the pub’s restaurant finally has a chef to do it justice.

Until a little over a year ago, Dan Hunter was head chef at Andoni Aduriz’s Mugaritz, the Basque country restaurant that is among the most vaunted of Spain’s new elite. Now Hunter is back in his home state, cooking some of the most interesting food in any of the Australian capitals, let alone in a town that has yet to find the need for a set of traffic lights. With that extraordinary wine list backing him up (have a look at the condensed version on Royal Mail’s website), as well as the resources of the Myers estate’s own gardens, Hunter is determined to create a world-class destination restaurant. I was dazzled by the clarity and intensity of his extraordinary smoked tuna broth, speckled with a confetti of tiny shoots and blossoms (and matched with a fine Sanchez Romate Palo Cortado sherry). The play of textures between the firm white flesh of hapuka; the bounce of yabby tails (a local species of fresh-water crustacean); and confit pig’s tails, perfumed by the scent of fennel flowers, is a many-splendored thing, even before the grand cru Burgundy it’s paired with comes on the scene.

The hotel is simple but comfortable. The bistro menu and anything from the wine list are available as room service, so you can kick back on your veranda with a plate of jamón ibérico and some oysters while they open your Margaux. The only stipulation is that they open the wine for you. That Margaux, for instance—(and we’re talking a full page of vintages here, including the 2000, the ’90, the ’82, the ’67, the ’34, and a ’79 magnum)—is well under auction price, and they don’t want collectors coming in, loading up the car, and driving off.

The Royal Mail cellar also has full verticals of many of the greater and more interesting Australian houses, and I was especially pleased to see how much good wine they offered under the $50 mark—something almost unheard of at restaurants of this quality, especially those with a fine wine focus.

Plans are in the works to construct a separate restaurant space on the site that will keep up with the fine quality of the food and wine. For now, those two elements equal a pretty serious draw in themselves, and certainly warrant a detour. Maybe it isn’t so unlike Bray after all.

Royal Mail Hotel Dunkeld, Australia (613-5577-2241; royalmail.com.au)