When I first wrote about Birregurra’s Brae Restaurant in 2015, the way I introduced Dan Hunter – the immense talent behind it all – was through observing the fact that he honed his skills at, among other places, the famed Mugaritz in the Basque Country.
In 2017, that introduction is no longer necessary. With its ascension to #44 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Brae has definitively cemented itself a position as one of of Australia’s best restaurants. This is world-class cooking in a town of less than 700 people folks. It’s something special.
Date Last Visited: 15/Oct/2017 (four visits)
Address: 4285 Cape Otway Road,Birregurra, VIC
Highlight Dish: iced oyster
Price Guide (approx): $295pp (current price; $240 at last visit), matched wines +$145pp
Dan Hunter is a man with a pedigree. Not only does he have the aforementioned top honour of serving as Mugaritz’s chef de cuisine (Mugaritz ranking #9 in this year’s World’s 50 Best list), he has also taken The Royal Mail hotel – another regional restaurant in Victoria, to two chef’s hat status in his time there.
Hunter is not a man who messes around when it comes to food. When he opened Brae, he put Birregurra on the map. Foodies from all over Australia (and no doubt from the world this year going forward) swooped in to nab a table. The restaurant takes bookings 6 months in advance, yet good luck trying to find a booking at any time other than in the 6th month. This is despite the fact that Birregurra is located nearly one hundred and fifty kilometres from Melbourne CBD.
But in some ways, that’s also part of the charm. It’s destination dining, a taste of rural Victoria, given the fine dining treatment without ever being over the top. If people would fly internationally to dine at The Fat Duck Melbourne, then what’s a 1.5hr drive?
Dan Hunter’s food philosophy for Brae is to forge a connection with the land, maintaining utmost respect to the available produce, sourcing it locally, with many ingredients produced on the restaurant’s own 30-acre site. Indeed, the first sights you are greeted with as you drive past the restaurant’s sign are the restaurant gardens. It’s worth getting there 20 minutes early so you can get out and smell the roses, so to speak.
Once I finally decided to step into the restaurant itself, I beheld a cozy, inviting waiting lounge with a real fireplace, giving off a genuine feeling of being invited into a farmstay.
While it’s a farmhouse, it’s an elegantly-presented one that doesn’t sacrifice any form nor functionality because of its location. Functional, but beautiful.
Now, let’s talk food. Brae’s degustation-only menu has fifteen entries, so make sure you come hungry. Of course, you won’t be stuffed – most courses are appropriately-portioned, and the pacing is a leisurely 3.5-4 hours. Don’t expect edge-of-your-seat theater, it’s more long lunch comfort territory.
The menu runs at $240, in line with a restaurant at this level. Matching wines will run you an extra $130pp. Let’s get into it!
Our first plate is a beautiful plate of snacks:
- Brook trout roe & nut butter crisp
- Potato & eel sandwich
- Burnt pretzel, treacle & pork (pictured further below)
I had a pretty good feeling about this the moment it hit the table!
I started with the potato & eel sandwich (the purple and red morsels on the plate). Purple & red farm potatoes are fried into a perfect crunch, with eel mousse sandwiched in between. The texture of the crisps takes me back to my favourite “junk food” chips – Red Rock Deli. I mean that in a fully complimentary way (I love Red Rock!). Fantastically textural, full of bursty, starchy-sweet flavour.
And then I hit the eel mousse, which has a similar texture to a rich, thick chocolate mousse. Of course, in this case, the flavour is the beautiful umami of eel. Amazing
Next up, we’ve got the brook trout roe & nut butter crisp. It’s a very dainty starch crisp enclosing some very photogenic flowers, trout roe and green, jelly-like butter on the inside. The crisp had a texture akin to a prawn cracker, folding in and collapsing easily as I chewed on it, releasing bursts of starchiness with every bite. The green “jelly” on the inside exploded with a cold saltiness that cut through the slight oiliness of the crisp, and with the support of the trout roe, carried through as a chilly, refreshingly salty-sweet jelly.
The burnt pretzel differentiates itself by being the ugly duckling of the three, but certainly doesn’t fall behind its snack compatriots in flavour?
If there was a “pork floss” flavour in a pretzel, this would be it. With every bite, I could not shake off the feeling of eating a similar childhood snack. Brae’s rendition is more friable in terms of crunch: with each bite, the pretzel sticks become crumblier and crumblier, releasing porcine aromas with each mouthful. Coupled with its slightly charred taste, it made for a very moreish morsel.
The strong start to the meal is continued with the prawn, nasturtiums & finger lime. We were advised that the heads could be fully eaten. I don’t usually eat prawn heads, but I went all in on these, leaving nothing on the plate. This is, as quoted from my notes – “so friggin good”. The prawn heads were incredibly juicy, exploding with fresh seaweed (and of course, prawn-y) flavours and a citric tartness from the finger lime. The meat itself was firm and springy, encased by the crunchy shell that’s almost chip-like. Some parts of the head were difficult to chew, so care had to be taken.
The best prawn heads ever? The best prawn heads ever.
As for the little green nasturtium-wrapped parcels, they’re filled with a tangier clump of prawn meat and finger lime. It was a well-balanced dish – the lime bringing just the right level of acidity to the meat, which itself delivered the right level of persistent ‘prawniness’.
Speaking of balance, here is Brae’s signature Iced Oyster. While it looks deceptively simple, each little morsel is 12 hours in the making; the results, as you’d expect, were spectacular: a beautiful mossy veneer of green completely covers an oyster shell arrived at the table atop a cluster of smooth sea stones. Underneath is what I would call an oyster soft serve. Familiar, but ever so slightly different.
It is the ultimate definition of umami. The oyster is an absolute conflagration of intensely complex, oceanic savouriness. It is absolutely, gobsmacking in its intensity. Textually, it’s very creamy, just like a well-made soft serve. A dish with no peer.
I’m not as much of a fan of the beef tendon ‘cracker’. It was like an oily prawn cracker, and not particularly well-seasoned. The same seaweed dust used on the oyster was dusted here which while flavourful, was not used liberally enough. I get the feeling this cracker was meant to be eaten with the iced oyster, but I wasn’t instructed to do this.
As you might expect, even the bread is worth a conversation. It’s simple stuff, really: a woodfired sourdough. But it’s the perfect marriage of a soft, spongy centre with a perfect, earthy tang, surrounded by a moreishly crunchy crust, baked to the point of perfection. Each bite was just so delectable. Oh, and it’s also served warm. So many points for that.
Then there was also the Jersey Cow butter. House-churned and taken just past the point of splitting, the texture is deliberately made chunky instead of creamy, whilst keeping it spreadable. This may seem like a faux pas for butter, but I was able to appreciate how the difference in texture made it very nice to simply just eat the butter straight off the dish.
The next dish is an almost too healthy-looking cured blue mackerel. It’s a beautiful looking dish, with lots of variation on watery crunch coming from wild greens, themselves lightly flavoured with pickling liquid.
This is actually my least favourite dish, and the reason is underneath all those veggies.
See, it’s the mackerel. Of all the seafood I’ve ever tried, none match the mackerel when it comes to flavour pungency. Now, some pungent aromas, such as truffle, are okay. Unfortunately, I fall on the wrong side of the spectrum when it comes to mackerel. The aroma just doesn’t do it for me which alas, means any dish that heroes it (even when served in sushi Omakase) will likely be one of my least favourite. I was also not a fan of the wild greens puree bedding the fish – it was like a flavourless kale smoothie.
Next up on the menu is a dish that thankfully doesn’t trigger the wrong olfactory responses. Underneath what I think is a tofu skin lies a Crayfish that oddly enough, was outshone by the burnt potatoes that lay snug besides the crustacean.
That the potatoes stole the limelight from the crayfish isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as these spuds totally deserved to take the crown with their near fondant-like softness, butteriness and wholesomeness of flavour. At the same time, they carried a smoky, charred mouthfeel on the outside; a hard act to top.
Indeed, the potatoes stole the show from the crayfish – the crustacean itself was rather average, tasting of neutrality, and in a portion too small for me to properly enjoy. Texturally, it was very chewy and springy, like a crayfish should be – it just wasn’t anything particularly exciting. I thought I could get a flavour hit from the roe, but couldn’t really find any on my plate.
Potato: 1; crayfish: 0
A pure vegetarian dish of nettle, winter truffle & brassicas came next and stunned the senses. If all vegetarian dishes taste as good as this, I’d be happy to switch. The dish was textural heaven; it’s a showcase of brassica greens, turned into veggie chips. There’s all kinds of crispiness and crunchiness; one of the best texture showcases in the entire meal. The truffle & vegetable broth provided the required heady aromas and flavours, reminiscent of a dashi, with a cheesiness brought about by the bed of green ricotta on the bottom.
The only little downer was the creamy ricotta. While enjoyable, it began to get quite heavy after a few mouthfuls. A bit less would have been perfect, but I wonder if that would have been possible, given its critical role in propping up the vegetable forest.
The hapuku & cured pork was a dainty portion of fish that was the perfect seafood farewell, as this was the last fish dish we had.
The most eminent feature about this dish is the gelatinous net-like lardo that overlays the fish. It sported a very chewy texture that released bursts of porky and fishy salinity with each bite. Upon reaching the hapuku itself, I was greeted by tender soft flesh that once more made me lament the small portion size.
Additionally, there was a piece of what I think was radish, providing a crunchy foil to the soft textures of the fish and gelatin. There was also a porky mousse on the bottom, which I suspect is the actual pork itself (I didn’t find any pork meat, per se). No, it didn’t overpower the fish, instead endowing it with another dimension of flavour.
The 45-day aged full blood Tajima is the big kahuna, the crème de la crème of Brae’s savouries. This renowned Japanese wagyu breed is at the same level of Kobe beef, yielding some of the best bovine goodness to graze the grain of this Earth.
The aging time inculcates a huge amount of flavour into the meat. That’s what dry aging does.
It was earthy and complex, with a bit of cheesy ‘funk’ and an extremely saturated beefy aroma. Texturally, it’s as juicy a cut as you’ll get: satisfying chewy, with bursts of succulent beefiness with every bite. Naturally, there’s also a well-browned crust around the edges thanks to my favourite chemical reaction – the Maillard effect.
While the aging already imparts enough flavour to the beef itself, the dollop of BBQ carrot sauce that comes with the dish begged to be tasted. It was quite the shock to the palate when I discovered just how airy-fairy light it actually was. Despite the airy-fairy nature of it, it packed a heck of a punch with sweet, burnt carrot notes and cheesy undertones.
Did the beef require it? Technically, no. Was it delicious nonetheless? Absolutely.
The beef was superb, the Otway shiitake & Berkshire pork was perhaps less so. What stood out most to me with this dish is how rindy the pork is. This is not how I like my pork. There were other extenuating qualities of the dish, such as the flavoursome mushrooms, the chewy and glutinous buckwheat, and the overall savoury mushroom flavour profile.
However, when the hero is too rindy, it’s game over.
The first of our two desserts was simply titled milk & honey. It’s a milk crisp with truffle honey ice cream, served with a mandarin wedge and shaved truffle. The ice cream was a welcome relief from the richer mains earlier, underpinned by honey and strong aromas of truffle. Further to this, the delicate crispy milk skin morphed in texture from a buttery chip to a melt-in-the-mouth sensation, leaving behind a sweet, buttery aftertaste to absorb even more of that refreshing ice cream.
An out-of-place element would be the mandarin slice. I didn’t see the point of it, though featuring fruit in dessert seems to be a bit of a thing in fine dining circles. No qualms personally, but the mandarin just didn’t need to be there for the rest of the dessert to work.
The final dessert was Parsnip & apple. This featured a deep-fried parsnip crisp resting on top of parsnip cream & strokes of honey, surrounded by pieces of dehydrated apple.
Holy moly, that parsnip cone is ‘the’ crunch. The chip was all about that starchy, deep-fried piece of guilt. It’s a fair bit thicker than a potato crisp, requiring a bit of jaw work, with incredibly satisfying results. The cream it rested on was muted in its sweetness, making for a suitable accompaniment to the parsnip funnel without overplaying sweetness or richness. The honey and shaved cheese brought in the final bits of flavour, rounding off the dessert.
The dehydrated apple? Again, I felt its inclusion was somewhat gratuitous. But also once more, they didn’t detract from the dish.
While I had hoped for something a little more refreshing/cold to round off the meal, I have to admit Brae’s desserts hit the mark.
The absolute last thing we ate were three rhubarb & pistachio biscuits. We were positively full, but these little bites were just oozing with sweetness and begged to be eaten. There was strong pistachio flavour with every bite, and an acridity from the preserved blackberry & rhubarb. The biscuit was quite chewy, sticky and very dense, but I never got sick of it due to the portion size.
See below for photos from a second dining experience at Brae. To read my concluding thoughts, skip to the bottom of the post.
Brae is an experience, through and through: the drive, farmhouse setting, and of course the food. Being able to tour the gardens and witnessing the entire cycle of planting & tending of the crops, and tasting their translations on the plate is truly evocative of dining at your friend’s farm. Lucky you, to have a friend like that. Brae is progressive Modern Australian dining at its finest – truly a world class restaurant. In less than two years, Brae landed the 87th, the 65th, and now the 44th spots in the World’s 50 Best List. While I, like many others, do not fully support the mechanics and workings of the List itself, one has to commend Brae’s steady rise up its ranks. Could it go higher? The sky’s the limit.
This post is based on two independently paid-for visits to Brae.
- Simply one of the best dining experiences one can have in Australia.
- Superfluous service
- That iced oyster
- Some challenging dishes
- It’s not the easiest place to get to
- The desserts could have been constructed to better foil the rich savoury courses
F8 | S5 | A3