Sunday, 15 March 2015

Brae., Birregurra, Victoria - 23 February 2015

"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.

Then there was a long, black, twig-like “burnt pretzel” that was smoky, sweet (from treacle) and savoury (from powdered pork crackling). The vegetarian burnt pretzel was dusted with sea lettuce, kind of like a refined Pocky stick flecked with seaweed.

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)
A sheet of puffed beef tendon is airy, crunchy and sticky, a truly delightful snack, one that is like a fancy prawn cracker. The beef tendon is dusted with mountain pepper to give it touch of heat. The vegetarian cracker, which is made from rice paper, is just as crunchy but does not have the sticky texture of the tendon. 

There is a wedge of lemon cucumber, dusted with lemon myrtle for the vegetarian.

Iced oyster
The iced oyster is the first bite that may challenge some diners but I think it’s a stroke of genius. There’s an oyster ice cream that’s made from the oyster’s brine and cultured cream, filled into an oyster shell. The ice cream is dusted with freeze dried oysters and sea lettuce. The sweet, briney flavours of the sea fills each creamy mouthful of this amazing creation. The iced oyster is one of the best things that I have ever had the pleasure of eating!

Radish and Jersey cream
The next snack, a single radish served with fermented Jersey cream, is in contrast to the highly technical snacks earlier.  The radish was obviously fresh, having been plucked from the earth in the morning. Simple but absolutely delicious!

Summer squash and sheep's curd grilled over juniper (veg. menu)
Continuing on with the theme of clean simplicity is the summer squash filled with sheep’s curd that’s been grilled over juniper in the vegetarian menu.

Prawn, nasturtium, finger lime; Turnip and brook trout
Braised turnips were hollowed out and filled with brook trout roe, creating an excellent combination that’s fresh and bursting with flavour, literally!

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)
Jasmine, tonic syrup, pink grapefruit and finger lime, was the matching drink to the snacks. This was so refreshing, with the flavours all being well balanced (neither too sweet not too acidic). This was an obvious match to the nasturtium, prawn and finger lime, so we made sure that I still had some left by the time we were served the final snack.

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
Bread and butter arrived after the snacks. Brae’s whole wheat sourdough is so good that it is almost worth the price of admission alone! The bread is baked in a special outdoor brick oven that was made by the late and world-renowned oven maker, Alan Scott. Quite simply, this is some of the best bread you will find anywhere in Australia! The dark, thick crust takes on the smoky flavour of the wood fire and the bread itself is quite light and fluffy for a sourdough. The butter, which looks more like whipped cream, is tangy and lightly churned from Jersey milk from Warrnambool. Just incredible stuff really!

Course one
Crayfish and burnt potatoes, flathead roe, milk and mustard

Revealing what's hiding underneath the milk skin
The first of the main savoury courses contained morsels of crayfish and burnt potatoes hidden underneath a silky blanket of milk skin. The crayfish was gently cooked and were still quite tender and translucent. The sweetness of the crayfish was enhanced by gentle heat of mustard seeds and saltiness of flathead roe. Various herbs and flowers from Brae’s gardens added freshness and an extra flavour dimension to the dish. This dish tasted clean, light and fresh, which made for an amazing first course!

Lapsang Souchog, burdock root and echinacea, fennel and orange
I am not a fan of lapsang souchong at the best of times due to its intense smokiness but this tea, which also contained earthy, floral, aniseed and tangy notes from burdock root, Echinacea, fennel and orange, was well balanced and went well with the flavours of the crayfish course.

Heirloom carrot, grilled tofu and white onion (veg. menu)
My wife’s grilled tofu was excellent and its texture was somewhere between a silken tofu and a firm tofu. The tofu harnessed the incredible sweetness of the heirloom carrots, carrot sauce and white onions. This was another dish that showcased the amazingly fresh vegetables that Brae has access to.

Course two
Calamari and fermented celeriac, grilled peas and beef fat
Lightly cooked strands of calamari were tender and slightly bitey at the same time. Strands of fermented celeriac were mixed amongst the calamari to add a different texture and another dimension to the dish. The grilled peas were sweet and exploded with flavour in the mouth. These were probably the tastiest peas that I have ever tasted! Beef fat from the marrow added richness and savouriness to the dish, whilst remaining light and well balanced. Yet another superb course! 

Cucumber, lime, curly mint, sea lettuce
The matching drink to the calamari was my favourite of the meal! This fizzy drink was incredibly refreshing (from cucumber and curly mint), with notes of citrus (from lime) and seaweed (from sea lettuce). This drink went well with the freshness and sweetness of the calamari and grilled peas.

Tomato and zucchini on toast (veg. menu)

Tomato and zucchini on toast revealed!
The second course of the vegetarian menu, Brae’s breakfast sounding "tomato and zucchini on toast", is a stunning creation that would not look out of place on the normal menu! Beneath a a veil of crisp zucchini flowers was a slightly warmed heirloom tomato, freshly plucked from Brae’s garden. The quality of the tomato was apparent from the first bite. It is almost impossible to describe the euphoria that is felt when you taste a tomato which has such a deep, rich flavour. Memories of the tomatoes that we tasted at L’Arpege came flooding back, the last time where we were this excited about tomatoes. The tomato was topped with a variety of different basil leaves and ricotta, flavours which undoubtedly work with tomatoes.  The tomato sat on "toast", which was a mix of crunchy bread crumbs and dried olives. This summery dish was the clear standout of the vegetarian menu.

Course three
Warm ricotta and nettle, roasted chicken and brassicas
The warm ricotta and nettle, roasted chicken and brassicas is a powerful and intense dish. Shards of paper thin brassicas and crispy roasted chicken skin are a joy to munch on with the smooth ricotta. A roasted chicken broth is poured over the dish at the table. The flavours in this dish are grassy, bitter and wonderfully savoury.

Oolong 'Iron Goddess of Mercy', Fujian, China
The matching drink with the ricotta dish was an oolong tea, “Iron Goddess of Mercy”. This mellow and refreshing tea was an obvious match with the “grassiness” of the brassicas.

Warm ricotta and nettle, mushroom and brassicas (veg. menu)
My broth in my wife's dish had a mushroom broth in place of the chicken broth and the chicken skin crisps were replaced with cauliflower crisps.

Course four
Barbecued wallaby not barbecued
My waiter announced the name of the next dish, “barbecued wallaby not barbecued” and left me to work out what the dish was made up of. This was a challenging and perplexing dish as I struggled to work out all the components. Essentially, everything in this dish, except the wallaby was barbecued. Finely chopped raw wallaby meat was filled inside a barbecued radicchio leaf like a spring roll, along with crunchy puffed wild rice and mountain peppers. The dipping sauce was a charred beetroot puree, which was intensely earthy, sweet and smoky. The wallaby was excellent without being at all gamey. All the flavours in this dish worked very well together, except it took me a while to warm to the bitterness of the charred radicchio leaf.

Berries, leek ash, mountain pepper, ginger
The matching drink with the wallaby was a black berry juice with leek ash, mountain pepper and ginger. This was again delicious and its flavours accentuated the earthy, bitter and smoky flavours of the barbecued wallaby not barbecued.

Charred radicchio and beetroot, quandong cooked with rhubarb (veg. menu)

Underneath the radicchio leaf
My wife’s dish had the similar smoky, earthy and bitter flavours from charred beetroots and radicchio as well as additional tartness from quandong and rhubarb, that worked well in this native Australian dish.

Course five
Grass fed Tajima Beef aged 30 days, cauliflower, soured onions
The final savoury course was grilled dry aged Tajima beef (Kobe beef not from Kobe). I don't think I have ever had beef this flavoursome, which is in no douubt due to the dry aging process. The beef was cooked rare with a blushing pink centre and beautifully caramelised crust. The beef was tender while retaining a nice, slightly resistant texture (I want to be able to chew on my meat to release more flavour). The beef was paired with fresh leaves, soured onions cooked in whey and crispy cauliflower chips.

Our genmaicha - Jin Mao Hou, toasted wild rice
The matching drink with the beef was another tea, a genmaicha with Jin Mao Hou (golden monkey) and toasted wild rice. The savouriness and nuttiness of the genmaicha was a great match to the beef.

Eggplant in white miso, dried grains, cured kelp (veg. menu)
My wife’s final savoury course was soft and smoky eggplant with white miso, dried grains and cured kelp. The white miso was not overpowering and really well-balanced with the floral, nutty and umami flavours in this dish. This was another beautiful dish that was amongst my wife’s favourite for the meal.

Course six
Red fruits, lemon and lovage, wild cabbage, and buckwheat
The first dessert course was a wonderful combination of sweet and tart blackberries and blackcurrants, tangy lemon curd, grapefruit and savoury elements that surprisingly work well together (lovage, wild cabbage and buckwheat). Mix it all up and savour the assortment of vibrant summer fruits!

Rhubarb, Australian sencha, lemon myrtle
Australian sencha with rhubarb juice and lemon myrtle might sound odd, but this combination has unexpected synergy. This fragrant, refreshing concoction helps mellow out some of the tartness of the berries.                 

Course seven
Parsnip and apple
The final course of the menu is perhaps Brae’s most famous dish, one that is not likely to be taken off the menu for some time. A crisp fried parsnip skin, looking rather like a brandy snap, is set on top of a creamy apple and parsnip mousse. The apple and parsnip mousse is really moreish, like a velvety custard. Apple can also be found in this dessert as pieces of freeze-dried apples, as grated freeze-dried apples and as a caramel made from apple and chamomile. This was a highly technical dessert in preparation, but it had the heart-warming comfort of an apple pie. A truly incredible dessert that is worthy of being a signature dish! 

Pink lady and chamomile
Parship and apple was matched with a warm chamomile tea with pink lady apple juice to accentuate the flavours of the dessert.

Petit fours
Rhubarb and pistachio, blood and preserved blackberry; Rhubarb and pistachio, preserved blackberry (veg. menu)
For petit fours, the menu reads rhubarb, pistachio, preserved blackberry and pig’s blood, something that is likely to send panic to some. But you needn’t worry because this little bite is absolutely delicious! A soft, chewy pistachio biscuit was bound with pig’s blood and topped with rhubarb and preserved blackberry (the vegetarian biscuit does not have pig's blood of course!). A fitting end to a remarkable meal!

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)

Address: 4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra VIC 3242
Contact no: (03) 5236 2226

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