Brae – Dani Valent

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4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra, (03) 5236 2226

My score: 5/5

Brae has three Good Food Guide hats. It was named 44th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Its owner Dan Hunter could fill a barn with ‘chef of the year’ awards. So, you would expect this five-year-old country restaurant, two hours west of Melbourne, to be very, very good. What you might not anticipate is how great it makes you feel.

Over five supremely relaxed hours on a recent Monday afternoon I was fed, definitely. The current menu lists 19 dishes comprising about 80 elements and you get all of them: you will not leave hungry. (In fact, if at all possible, don’t leave at all: the on-site accommodation is outstanding.)

But the nourishment goes way beyond calories. I was also amused (“Feel free to stab the trout roe with the eel donut,” went one light-hearted instruction from a waiter as he delivered yet another incongruously delicious dish). I was educated: green ants taste like citrus, summer honeycomb is soft and less waxy. And I was surprised, not least by the revelation that eating oyster-flavoured ice cream feels like ducking into a brisk ocean wave.

My every dining whim was not only fulfilled but anticipated in so freakish a way that I found myself wondering whether telepathic abilities are a requirement to work here. Brae is a complete experience with every aspect so well-considered – even room for improvisation – that I left feeling uplifted, energised and oh so lucky.

If it seems silly to talk about bread when the menu also includes ants, oyster ice cream and a dessert made from parsnip, then at least know that the Brae team takes its bread so seriously that they’ve just dedicated one-third of their 30-acre farm to growing wheat. And, like everything else they grow (olives, pistachios, carrots, quince and much more), it will be farmed chemical-free.

Grains are already milled on-site with four different textures of whole-grain flour used to make naturally fermented loaves that are earthy and lifted at the same time. It’s presented half-way through the meal with a curdy cultured butter arrested just before it becomes cheese: it’s brightly acidic, dense yet light. If I’m ever called upon to choose my last meal, this bread and butter will be it.

Vegetables are threaded through the menu, and they’re lavished with attention from tip to root. Beetroot is turned into a gleaming, roasted jewel, sweet and succulent, burnished with a deeply reduced onion glaze. It’s very much beetroot – earthy, soil-nurtured – but nuanced cookery finds the heroism in the humble root. Carrot and octopus, both sliced into coins, find a family resemblance in their circularity, the physical similarities augmented by cooking the carrots in calamari stock. There’s a lot more going on – smoky notes, an aniseed hit – but the other flavours seem to be singing about the magical marriage of carrot and octopus.

Long menus in special restaurants often peter out in fatigue. That’s staved off here with lively pops of acidity in most dishes, brilliant non-alcoholic beverage options, restrained seasoning that keeps the palate reaching for sensation and, best of all, in a chicken dinner that is the final savoury course. I loved this, not just because the whole bird is honoured – the breast roasted, the thighs glazed, the liver turned into parfait, the hearts barbecued – but because it lets a fancy meal ease into a comforting country feast.

Brae’s menu changes as its garden ebbs and flows but there’s one dish that’s been on since day one. Dan Hunter’s parsnip and apple dessert comprises deep-fried, roasted parsnip skin formed into a shatter-crisp cone, concealing apple and parsnip mousse. It’s sweet but not cloying, weird but also comforting and theatrical, fun and flat-out enjoyable in a way that’s very Brae indeed.


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