Drive for a few hours down the Glenelg Highway from Ballarat, and you will reach the town of Dunkeld. As quaint as Dunkeld is, with its quiet little main street and stunning views, you could easily miss it, or just drive through it on your way to the Grampians National Park,
But Dunkeld just so happens to be home to one of the best restaurants in Australia. Blink and you might miss the spaceship shaped old Royal Mail Hotel as you drive down the main street. The restaurant in this now luxury hotel has two chefs hats from The Age Good Food Guide…for those non Australians this is a big deal (3 hats is as good as you can get). In fact this restaurant is the reason many people make the trip out to Dunkeld in the first place.
And it is completely and totally worth it. Inside the restaurant is very simple, crisp and clean: white walls, bright lights, white table linen. The atmosphere is relaxed. Half the diners are wearing jeans and running shoes, some are locals celebrating a birthday, others look like they have flown half way across the world and dressed in their finest.
We were seated right in front of the open kitchen. The kitchen staff, as with everything else in the restaurant, were remarkably calm and zen. We ordered the tasting menu which is what you do if you make the trip all this way.
The meal we had at the Royal Mail is one of the best that I have had anywhere, and we have been lucky enough to visit some incredible restaurants over the years. Nothing distracts from the food, not the service or the atmosphere, the lighting, music. Everything is set out to ensure that you are focused solely on the food presented in front of you, and that’s all you need. The man in charge is Executive Chef Robin Wickens and he did a brilliant job, with each course more beautiful than the next. He introduced us to many foods that we had never tried before, starting with abalone and duck tongue salad with nigella and burnt honey. The Pork jowl and scotch, acorn puree French beans and roasted fig compote was so good. The cheddar ice-cream with Guinness and hob nob was fascinating and the poached quince, rosemary ice-cream and jerusalem artichoke chips was an intriguing and delicious mix of savoury and sweet.
The ingredients are local, many grown right in the back in their own garden. If you also choose to stay at the hotel that is part of the restaurant, you can ask for a free tour of the garden. If you are a wine lover, the restaurant has one of the most impressive wine cellars in the country (and even beyond) with over 2,300 different local and imported wines to choose from.
At the end of our meal the decorative pot with fresh mint that had been sitting there all evening, revealed itself to be a pot filled with chocolate soil and truffles rather than with real soil. To accompany this I ordered, of course, a hot chocolate, dark couverture chocolate, nothing as intricately prepared as our tasting menu, but a nice pairing with our chocolate pot.
Verdict: Stay longer and spend some time in Grampians National Park, literally in the backyard of the Royal Mail. What a fantastic trip. Royal Mail Hotel, 98 Park Street, Dunkeld, Australia