Right at the base of the Southern Grampians, beneath the glowering peak of Mt Sturgeon, nestles the tiny town of Dunkeld. What’s in Dunkeld? Sheep farms. A general store. A post office. A Rotary Park. Not so different from all the other rural Western Districts towns.
Except that this one also has one of Victoria’s best regional restaurants clasped within its green bosom. The most striking feature of the town is the tarted up Royal Mail hotel with its lovely sandstone curves and contemporary green metal awning.
The Royal Mail tries hard to please everyone – the cheery bar with its roaring fire and chicken parmy (Glenloth organic chicken, if you don’t mind) attracts the local community and plenty of families. The bistro offers a seasonal menu with simpler but still very well executed fare for those who have made a weekend of it and don’t want to go the Full Monty in Dan Hunter’s elegant dining room two nights in a row.
And what is the Full Monty? A ten course degustation, your only choice being omnivore or vegetarian. Dunkeld is, in fact, all about Dan Hunter.
Let me drop some names at the outset. I have eaten at the Fat Duck and at Noma (sadly never scored a gig at El Bulli), and although I hope I’m not a food tosser, I’ve eaten soils and foams and crisps and airs magicked up by the best of them. I (or at least my credit card) would like to think I have a fair benchmark.
Hunter’s menu is of the Minimalist Ingredient Description School. However his technical aspirations were a little hit and miss, I thought. The worst offender was a pair of Jerusalem artichokes, roasted til grey and slightly shrivelled, stuffed with triple cream brie on a hazelnut praline. My first thought was that they looked like an old man’s testicles (just guessing). Some gentle pressure with my knife, and some molten cheese shot out. My second unwelcome visual image was of a lanced boil (again, just guessing). Neither image whetted the appetite but once they were in my mind, I couldn’t get rid of them.
However my main course of “Vegetables From Our Garden” was just lovely. A picture on the plate, a huge variety of baby vegetables, leaves and flowers had been carefully seasoned and the combination of fresh, roasted, nutty, crisp, pickled, caramelised and raw was fabulous – I think it would be fair to say I have never eaten more delicious vegetables.
Staff were a mix of professional and local, all friendly, and all offering cheerful and informative delivery on the passing parade of food and wine. It’s worth noting that the wine list requires several months of weight training prior to lift, and won the Australian Wine List of the Year 2012.
After dinner, the Royal Mail offers a variety of sleeping quarters. The Homestead, around 5 minutes drive away at the foot of Mt Sturgeon is a sprawling 1800’s Bluestone beauty surrounded by lawn and hosting one of the veggie gardens. The interiors are simple country-style, nothing offensive, nothing surprising. The Homestead sleeps in a variety of room configurations and is a little rabbit-warreny (yes I made that adjective up) but very comfortable for a large group of family or friends.
The Hotel itself offers a number of rooms in a motel like configuration. The rooms are simple and a little spare, the “Deluxe” version offering a well stocked minibar and newly renovated bathrooms but otherwise not noticeably different from the others. The pick of the bunch are the slightly austere apartments. Apartment 1 offers floor to ceiling picture windows showcasing the Grampians just outside. With a separate living space, kitchenette, and friendly wallabies, they are excellent for families.
So apart from eat, eat and eat, what is there to do in Dunkeld? There are some pleasant walking trails around the property itself, well suited to a casual digestive amble. Its second claim to fame is that it’s a gateway to the Grampians and a short drive brings you to some spectacular hiking at various entry points. The Pinnacles Walk via the Wonderland stop off point is beautiful and well patronised but there are plenty of other more secluded trails.
Another lovely stop on the way to or from Dunkeld is at Mr Zero Olives, at the foot of Mt Zero. I have long been in love with their olives, pulses and fabulous cheat’s felafel mix and thought I’d make the pilgrimage. As we drove (and drove, and drove), firstly on bitumen, then gravel, then dirt and finally sand through acres of olives, my better half started low mutterings and I caught the word “Deliverance”. Finally, in the middle of nowhere, we came upon the cellar door – a tiny white weatherboard church with a red tin roof. Inside were laminate tables and colourful vinyl chairs, jazz playing, fresh cut flowers, and all manner of olives and olive products, including a delicious lavender olive oil soap hand stirred outside in big cauldrons. We settled in for a delightful sunlit afternoon with fresh salads and home baked brownies, and left with a bootful of olives.
This was about my fourth trip to the Royal Mail and I have no intention of dropping it off my radar anytime soon. The combination of lovely rural driving, spectacular hiking and scenery, fresh air and good food and wine is hard to beat.
Post script: Dan Hunter has since left the Royal Mail, with the kitchen now helmed by Robin Wickens. Robin is a former alumni of Andrew McConnell and ran a gorgeous restaurant in Brunswick, Interlude. The change promises exciting things and I doubt will be a step down. Watch this space!