Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld delivers

How’s this for instant blogging? We are on our way home from celebrating WordMonkey’s 30th (the less said about that the better) birthday at Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld. We have wanted to check out this award-laden three-hat place for ages but rarely find a reason to head to its home in a not-much-happening corner of the Grampians. About 140km out of Ballarat, the hotel’s minty-green art deco exterior flashes past en route to really-nothing-happening Hamilton (although there is a bit of history here, with the first motel in country Victoria just around the corner).

A bistro by day and high-end restaurant by night this place also has accommodation and a local-stlye country pub attached. A surprising contrast of downscale and upscale with just a door to separate them. The pub menu is all about staple favourites like chicken parma, fish and chips, and steaks – there’s a pool table and no pokies, and they serve a decent drop by the glass and a good range of beers – so it’s definitely a more refined experience than some of the pot and pie establishments you might find around this neck of the bush.

The ‘bistro’ is wooden tables that get fancied-up with white linen tablecloths for the evening and a mid-range menu with mains around the $30 mark. There are a few things happening here worth noting – this lunch option provides people with the opportunity to try a great place without breaking the bank, but then with accessibility come other things and if I sound like a child-hatings snob then I can only apologise. But while I am taking advantage of the ‘cheaper’ menu I am still expecting a dining experience that is a cut above (because I have driven to the arse-end of the Grampians etc etc). So I don’t want to look at your kids’ toys all over the table and even less at their half-chewed food all over the floor. I appreciate that for locals the options around here are limited, but for us this has been a four-hour journey and we would like to be rewarded with a sense of occasion when we get there. However, this is my only gripe and really what I am trying to say is that the bistro / fine dining thing has equally good and bad points. I know we chose to only eat lunch so can’t really complain. And admittedly if the whole experience had been uber-refined and polished the atmosphere of an easy-going but great Sunday lunch would be lost. So stop talking and tell us about the food….

Well, dense wholemeal soda bread and butter starts us off before entrees of deliciously smooth duck and pistachio terrine with onion jam and risotto of spring vegetables arrive. Really can’t fault the terrine – great texture and balance of flavours with just-crunchy slices of brown toast to spread it on. Meaty without being too dense.

The risotto was bursting with fresh peas, broad beans and herby / ferny leaves, and the stock it had been cooked in was also fresh and light. Would have liked the addition of cold-pressed lemon oil to have been upped in order to impart a more zesty kick, and a bit more pecorino for a salty kick, but these things didn’t really detract from a good starter.

Next up – slow-cooked suckling pig, nashi and turnip, shallot and black mustard pickle. PhotoMonkey says: the pork was succulent and fell apart; pickle was quite spicy – imparting a curry kick; the poached pears were a good apple sauce substitute; didn’t need to the extra element of turnip – although we thought they looked more like radishes. No crackling but the skin was lean with a caramelised outer and semi-gelatinous layer of fat that added an extra dimension of flavour.

Luckily the boneless rack of lamb also had a good reserve of flavour stored in the fatty (not chewy, more melty) parts as the meat itself, although cooked just the right side of rare (slightly pink but well-rested), wasn’t really packing a punch the way a roasted spring lamp rack might – am putting this down to my hay fever and the fact that it appeared to have been cooked sous vide. It was served with colourful orange and purple heirloom carrots, almond cream and amazingly pungent but not overpowering pickled garlic. We had perfectly cooked new potatoes in horseradish cream and chives – could have eaten a wholebowl of these with a glass of the Henty Farm chardonnay. Overall portion size was spot on – satisfying but not leaving us full to bursting…

….which allowed us to go for desserts – hazelnut mousse, chocolate and honeycomb, and artisan cheese, house-made bread (raisins and nuts studding quite dark rye) and orange and carrot marmalade. The mousse: the highlight of the meal; if you like sweet treats this is the way to go. Smooth mousse with layers of shaved dark chocolate with a golden crown of honeycomb. A very on-trend offering having recently scoffed similar desserts at Chin Chin – coconut sorbet with palm sugar – and Loam – nectarine sorbet, honeycomb and mini pinecones. All served in Riedel-stlye stemless wine glasses.

Would have been nice to have someone explain the three cheeses and where they came from (especially at $26 for a total of around 120g of fromage) but anyway, the stinky blue, camembert-style and salty manchego were all good, however the marmalade was a bit too citrus for some of the more subtle flavours. Crisp bread good, other denser bread not so good. Amazing glass of Katnook Estate Riddoch shiraz from 1998 (Coonawarra) was the perfect finish, or a flat white if you have to get behind the wheel.

A great but not absolutely outstanding foodie destination (more atmosphere letting it down than anything else) surrounded by not much, but well worth the journey anyway – good cooking, with no showy gimmicks and none of the potential minefields that come with them. What happens to the menu and the space during dinner service is another story, and one that we are keen to investigate sometime, when we feel like driving over three hours for a good feed again.

Must try: Hazelnut mousse
Steer Clear: Eating beforehand
Price per head: $50 plus drinks

Royal Mail Hotel

98 Parker Street
Dunkeld, VIC 3294
Tel. (03) 5577 2577

Royal Mail Hotel on Urbanspoon

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