"Have you ever taken a holiday somewhere because you wanted to dine at a restaurant?"
This was exactly why my wife and I decided to visit the Great Ocean Road and The Otways of Victoria during February. This might sound a bit extreme but I can assure you that the effort we made to dine at this restaurant was completely worth it and we were rewarded with one of the most memorable dining experiences in Australia. So strap yourself in, because you’re in for one heck of a meal in this post!
The restaurant I am talking about is the three-toqued Brae. We are dining at Brae during the Monday lunchtime service, which I have booked in typical style, many months in advance. Like Royal Mail Hotel before at Dunkeld, Dan Hunter has put another country Victoria town on the map! Hunter’s found the perfect spot for his first restaurant venture in Birregurra, a tiny town in the Otways that’s about an hour-and-a-half hour’s drive from Melbourne. Dan Hunter (ex-head chef at world renowned restaurant, Mugaritz in the Basque Country of Spain) is one of the best chefs in Australia if not the world (recently in Le Chef’s list of 100 best chefs in the world as voted by over 500 two and three Michelin star chefs), so it is easy to see why foodies everywhere have taken notice and make the pilgrimage to Birregurra to dine at Brae.
Brae is housed in an old farmhouse and what makes Brae’s location special is that it is situated on 30 acres of land with four bursting dams and a kitchen garden complete with established vegetable patches, orchards of stone fruits, pistachios and olive trees. We arrived at the restaurant slightly early so we took the chance to stroll through these lovely gardens. You might even spot a chef wandering in the gardens, plucking some last minute things to be used for the upcoming service. I have heard that Hunter has even bigger plans, including raising livestock for the restaurant’s use in the future.
The space of the refitted farmhouse exudes elegance, luxury and comfort. Natural light floods in and reflects off the soft white walls to brighten up the entire room. White linen cover the round, generously sized tables, which are well-spaced apart from each other, allowing us to truly relax and dine in comfort. The restaurant’s open kitchen and the diners are separated by sound proofed glass, so as to not spoil the relaxed ambience of the dining room with the clatter of pans.
One of the many highlights of the experience is the service led by restaurant manager, Simon Freeman. The service is friendly, attentive and free of pretension. Staff are also highly knowledgeable and are there to answer any questions about the menu, including deconstructing each dish to its components. You get a sense of being very well looked after, some of the best service in the country.
The main attraction is of course the food. The menu at Brae is highly seasonal and changes depending on the availability of ingredients. Brae’s garden based cuisine requires a commitment to eat a wide range of plant and animal life, most of which are sourced in the region or from the restaurant’s own gardens. The food is quite technical and in some cases pushes boundaries and tests some diners’ fortitude (think prawn heads, pig’s blood). As such the food has divided some diners, but I think everything is brilliantly done.
Brae’s tasting menu consists of snacks, five savoury courses, two desserts and petit fours ($180 for the regular menu and $160 for my wife’s vegetarian menu).
Matching wines are $120 but you’ll need a designated driver if you want to indulge in wine given Brae’s location. This is a problem that will be alleviated when Brae finishes building their on-site accommodation, which will include 6 self-contained rooms.
I am not much of a wine drinker myself so I opted for the matching non-alcoholic drinks ($60). This pairing includes a mix of pressed fruit and vegetable juices and teas. I cannot speak highly enough of this pairing. Never have I seen non-alcoholic drinks matched so expertly with food at any restaurant. It all makes so much sense and all the drinks are rather tasty even on their own!
|Burnt pretzel, treacle, pork; Salt and vinegar potato; Burnt pretzel, treacle, sea lettuce (veg. menu)|
The meal kicks off with plates of snacks, all to be enjoyed cutlery-free. There were thin, purple salt and vinegar potato crisps that were so addictive that I wished there were more than two chips each. I would happily munch on a bag of these tangy crisps.
|Hapuka and crisp skin; Otway shiitake, eggplant, white miso; Leek and black cabbage (veg. menu); Otway shiitake and fermented lentil (veg. menu)|
The next round of snacks contained flakes of soft hapuka served on a puffed crisp skin.
My wife had a leek, with its root system in-tact and fried up to a crisp, with a black cabbage dipping sauce. The black cabbage tasted somewhat like matcha and both my wife and I agreed that it was incredibly tasty. So much so that we were both running our finger through it!
One of our favourite snacks were the Otway shiitake mushrooms, which were grown using traditional methods, i.e. on logs. The flavour of the shiitakes were distinctly earthy and as good as the best shiitake mushrooms we have tasted in Japan. My mushroom was filled with soft, creamy eggplant and white miso. The white miso, perhaps surprisingly was not overpowering and well-balanced with the floral notes in this bite. My wife’s shiitake was filled with fermented lentil.
|Iced oyster; Beef tendon and mountain pepper; Lemon cucumber and lemon myrtle (veg. menu); Rice paper and mountain pepper (veg. menu)|
There is a wedge of lemon cucumber, dusted with lemon myrtle for the vegetarian.
|Radish and Jersey cream|
|Summer squash and sheep's curd grilled over juniper (veg. menu)|
|Prawn, nasturtium, finger lime; Turnip and brook trout|
The next potential challenge for diners (but not me!) was a grilled prawn head, which was to be eaten whole in one bite. These prawn heads were crunchy and very juicy, so they exploded with flavour with each bite. I admire Brae’s chutzpah for serving prawn heads at a fine dining restaurant.
Wrapped inside a nasturtium leaf was a little parcel of chopped, sweet prawn tail meat and finger lime, yet another clean, light and fresh snack. The vegetarian version was filled with corn, tamarind and finger lime, which my wife thoroughly enjoyed.
|Jasmine, tonic, pink grapefruit; Garden mocktail ($11)|
My wife ordered the garden mocktail (rhubarb, apple, lemon juice and mint). This is one of the best mocktails we’ve ever tried! The ingredients may make the mocktail sound sour, but this was really well-balanced and so pleasant to drink. A perfect summer drink!
|Whole wheat sourdough bread and house churned butter|
|Crayfish and burnt potatoes, flathead roe, milk and mustard|
|Revealing what's hiding underneath the milk skin|
|Lapsang Souchog, burdock root and echinacea, fennel and orange|
|Heirloom carrot, grilled tofu and white onion (veg. menu)|
|Calamari and fermented celeriac, grilled peas and beef fat|
|Cucumber, lime, curly mint, sea lettuce|
|Tomato and zucchini on toast (veg. menu)|
|Tomato and zucchini on toast revealed!|
|Warm ricotta and nettle, roasted chicken and brassicas|
|Oolong 'Iron Goddess of Mercy', Fujian, China|
|Warm ricotta and nettle, mushroom and brassicas (veg. menu)|
|Barbecued wallaby not barbecued|
|Berries, leek ash, mountain pepper, ginger|
|Charred radicchio and beetroot, quandong cooked with rhubarb (veg. menu)|
|Underneath the radicchio leaf|
|Grass fed Tajima Beef aged 30 days, cauliflower, soured onions|
|Our genmaicha - Jin Mao Hou, toasted wild rice|
|Eggplant in white miso, dried grains, cured kelp (veg. menu)|
|Red fruits, lemon and lovage, wild cabbage, and buckwheat|
|Rhubarb, Australian sencha, lemon myrtle|
|Parsnip and apple|
|Pink lady and chamomile|
|Rhubarb and pistachio, blood and preserved blackberry; Rhubarb and pistachio, preserved blackberry (veg. menu)|
All things must come to an end and after three and a half hours of some of the most exquisite food and attentive service, we left the restaurant with a copy of our menus, signed by Dan Hunter, and memories that will last a life time! We took one last stroll around Brae's gardens to give us a final reminder of the surroundings for which the food conveyed a strong sense of place with.
Highlight: This was a meal jam packed with highs from the iced oyster, the bread, the Tajima beef, to the parsnip and apple dessert.
Lowlight: While the trip from Melbourne is 90 minutes, the journey from Sydney is almost 10 hours, making it difficult for repeat visits.
Overall: The food (innovative with a strong focus on fresh, local ingredients), service (friendly, attentive and unpretentious), ambience (a relaxed, spacious, elegant dining room) and remote location (the best for long, lazy lunches) all contribute to Brae being one of the best restaurant experiences you can find in this country. 9.5/10 (Outstanding)
Contact no: (03) 5236 2226