Royal Mail Hotel
98 Parker St
Dunkeld, VIC 3294
03 5577 2241
We ate here… and swooned. And somehow, I managed to convince Lauren of Footscray Food Blog fame to guest blog the experience. Lauren’s a wonderful writer and I hope you’ll enjoy her perspective of our meal at The Royal Mail.
Fatboo and Fakegf had had this Saturday evening degustation booked for over eight months. The booking was for three people initially but with a month or so to go, their third was forced to pull out. Before they asked me to become their new third wheel, they had asked Winston, who initially accepted with characteristic glee. However, turns out he thought they meant the backpacker pub the Royal Mail on Spencer Street! (Classic Winston – love it.)
Once it was established that it was the Royal Mail as in foraged fern fronds and chocolate soil (versus heart-shaped parmas and smelly socks), Winston had to turn it down. So that’s how I found myself barreling down the Western Highway in Fakegf’s zippy little Toyota, through sleepy towns and yellow canola fields…until suddenly, rounding a bend, there were the Grampians, like the profile of a gentle, slumbering giant.
The Royal Mail is the result of a slow evolution from “pioneer” watering hole to three-hat gastronomic destination. As we hopped from foot to foot, vainly trying to stretch our legs, we read a neat little sign out the front depicting its various incarnations spanning the last three centuries.
The three of us had commented over and over again on the fact that on this sunny evening, there was quite literally no one on the street in any of the tiny towns we zipped through. As a born and bred city slicker, I don’t pretend to fully understand the issues facing rural and regional Australia, but I can surmise what a boon it must be for little Dunkeld to have such an attraction in the Royal Mail.
Like the dags we are, we got lost and entered through the back bar where good old boys in work shirts were sucking down a few quick coldies. A great tip here is that there is a bar menu which comes from the same kitchen – I bet they do a killer steak.
But we were here for the epic “deg”. There’s a “menu omnivore” and a “menu vegetarian”, and I did teeter on the edge of the veg before finally being swayed by the eel on the omnivore. I read an article once about how to not put on weight as a food writer, and tip number one was don’t eat the bread. But with a choice of house-baked wholemeal or rye sourdough with house-churned and smoked butter – honestly, I’d rather stay podgy. I managed to balance the most obscene pats of fabulously rich and flavoursome butter onto each chewy sourdough mouthful.
The décor is interesting – it’s quite mumsy, with inoffensive carpet, stock-standard white walls and sheer, mother of the bride-dress material curtains. In one corner is a low side table stocked with spirits, just like cocktail hour at creepy Uncle Frank’s. But with all the crumb scraping and napkin refolding going on, when combined with genuinely friendly “country” service, this rather bland décor will set you at ease if you might have felt otherwise rather self-conscious.
First up were some cheeky little amouse bouches. Bubbled rice paper came scattered with orange fish roe and a zesty little citrus sprinkle, like a rockpool after the tide’s gone out.
I loved these amazing slabs of rainbow trout, so smoky with black treacle that they were almost like unagi. Underneath was a creamy, dill-spiked crème of sorts. LOVE.
On the right were whole slabs of chicken skin, baked or fried into big beige shards. Fakegf and Fatboo lurved them – Fakegf exclaimed that they needed to be manufactured as chips! – but I could hear my calorie counter app spinning its little numbers round and round in sheer fatty panic.
If you garden or you shop at the markets a lot, you’re likely to be cued into the seasons. I’m always slightly disconcerted when, in the dead of winter, cafes are still doing heirloom tomato and basil salads. I love that the Royal Mail are really tuned in to the seasons as they change, and on a warm spring’s day, here was a reminder of that day’s crisp, chilly morning.
A single asparagus spear, firm (and perhaps coated in a glaze of sorts?) laid next to a grassy puree and an icy sorbet of radish, fennel, daikon, lovage and cucumber. The flowers I think were pea flowers. Delicate, natural and so fresh.
What a warty little hedgehog! It was a long-running joke at school that the dictionary definition of “cute” was “ugly but interesting”. Hence, if you thought Matthew or Patrick from St Kevin’s was cute, you were calling him ugly but – okay, yep, you get it. Well, this Jerusalem artichoke was the definition of cute.
This ugly duckling popped open to reveal a silky triple cream cheese filling that spurted audaciously over sweet and crunchy hazelnut praline and neatly snipped chives. Absolutely divine.
I had decided to go hard or go home so had sprung for matching wines. First course had nabbed me some sublime, minerally French champagne. The asparagus had been joined by a lovely Spanish white, while this knobbly little critter had been paired with an extremely odd, aged white from the Hunter Valley. It was described as exhibiting “lanolin” characteristics and was honestly rather funky, but somehow the gaminess of the wine bounced off the sweet, silky cheese so well.
I was once watching Gordon’s Kitchen Nightmares and he was chastising some hapless apprentice that you couldn’t serve a poached egg that had already burst open. “The customer should be the one to break his yolk,” he said. And when you do make that small but satisfying cut into a poached egg, isn’t the pop of yellow that wells up so hopefully one of life’s tiny joys?
And so here was a whole, warm but essentially raw yolk, ours to burst and muddle all over tiny carved potatoes (poached in mackerel stock, apparently), crisp fish skin and delicate white flesh. Gorgeous.
Then alongside a luscious dry Riesling came hapuku, a firm white fish caught off Portland, cosying up to fried quinoa and a single leaf of pak choy. You know what I love? The yellow flowers, classic of any brassica like broccoli or indeed pak choy when they go to seed, just as most are doing as the days lengthen and the sun gets warmer. Fresh, simple, delicious.
Gradually the restaurant began to fill. Outside, the peak of Mount Sturgeon gazed benignly through the windows. What a treat to be here!
After the whisper of white fish and tender veg, eel, bone marrow and pickled beets burst onto the plate. The marrow, so often just a secret thing delicately dabbed at with a silver teaspoon, was here out and proud, grilled up and very much present in all its unctuous, wobbly glory.
The black shards were apparently eel wafers – I confess, I didn’t really get them – and along with Vietnamese mint and sweet, tangy pickled beets (bright yellow, magenta and stripy lolly pink) they crowded around the marrow, jostling for attention. Like a plaid suit, I found this dish loud and proud – great if that’s your taste, but a bit too boisterous for me.
It’s funny then that a wodge of barely cooked lamb could feel much more serene. Pink with spring fever, lamb that had grazed on salt grass lay on audaciously fresh broad bean puree (still more seasonal touches).
Criss crossing it was a single mature spinach leaf and crisp fried curry plant. Every gardening book informs you again and again that curry plant is not curry leaves, and indeed I have seen it so often in sensory gardens due to its enticing, spicy scent. I had never thought it could actually be used in a culinary sense so I enjoyed this little twist.
Slowly night approached and so did our meal’s sunset. A whole parsnip, swollen from nights in the frosty winter ground, was hollowed and the skin fried to a burnt toffee-flavoured crisp. Dotted with blueberries, fennel pollen, apple caramel and Myrtleford cream, it had the wonderful earthiness of carrot cake.
I could not get enough of this course’s matching beverage, a pear cider from Normandy by Eric Bordelet. Sprightly, cheeky, sweet and bubbly with no brash alcohol edge – an altogether dangerous drink! Glad that wasn’t around when Matthew and Patrick from St Kevin’s were.
Fakegf had been hanging out all meal for “milk and roses”, which to me sounds like “tea and sympathy” – a dish to wrap yourself up in and soothe a weary soul. A just-set quenelle of sheep’s milk yoghurt (I think?) hid under crisp wings (made from the skin from boiled milk) and gently melted into fairy dust made from powdered milk (!) and freeze-dried berries.
This course came with an amazing wine, a 1997 sweet gewurztraminer from Alsace. It was sweet with lychee and even hints of rose at the end. It’s an extra extravagance, but if you can handle a serious drink-mixing session (wine before beer, you’re in the clear…or is it beer before wine, you’ll be fine? Can never remember – maybe that’s my problem!), seriously, spring for the matching wines. It’s a chance to try so many vintages and varieties you would probably never otherwise come across or have the inclination to drink a whole bottle of.
Another vegetable-driven sweet course – carrots, treated with calcium oxide to give them firm exteriors while still being cooked, were dusted with the mandatory edible soil. Wouldn’t be a 2012 degustation without it.
Then finally, a reminder that the simple things in life really are the best. Fresh strawberries from the garden on moar chocolate soil (kinda like Ovaltine), bursting with the promise of summer just over the horizon.
What would I change? Hats off to Fakegf for the EPIC drive (three and a half hours each way in one day), but next time I’d stay overnight, just so I could go slump in a happy food coma somewhere instead of having to think about getting up to feed everyone Weet Bix in six hours.
A degustation isn’t really “going out for dinner”. It’s a front-row seat to the ballet, the footy or whatever tickles your fancy. It’s dinner and a show – simultaneously. What a show – and what a meal.