Brilliance in Birregurra, Brae Review
Location: 4285 Cape Otway Rd. Birregurra, Vic.
Chef: Dan Hunter
Hats: 3 (2015), #87 in the World.
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Few things make me feel more at ease in an unfamiliar restaurant than a well choreographed (but never robotic) floor team. Each member of the service team at Brae maintains their own unique personality, so Mookie and I establish a pleasant rapport, yet also integrate seamlessly into the team’s activities. Watching the staff work collectively is akin to watching the ballet. When paired with dishes resulting from the brilliant minds at play in the kitchen, the whole experience becomes a thing of well choreographed splendour. The chef continually monitors, looking out every few minutes from the kitchen (though he seems a might off-put by us watching him watching them).
It is such a perspective adjustment to walk from the dry country surrounds into a fine dining establishment for lunch on a Monday in regional Victoria and watch as the restaurant gradually fills to near capacity. Did I mention it’s an hour drive from Melbourne? If you ever have the opportunity to try Brae, take it and you will understand.
Mookie is driving so when she notices that there is a non-alcoholic drinks match she immediately selects it. I choose a half bottle of Chablis (Pommier Beauroy, 2012). Interesting to note that whilst Brae prides itself on locally source produce that they also have an excellent selection of foreign wines, some of which are included as matches if you should choose the alcoholic drinks match. The Chablis arrives, it is lovely – austere with flint and citrus but only a very vague hint of oyster shell which is a shame.
The amuse bouche arrive, asparagus, sea butter and olive plant. The “butter” is flavoured primarily with powdered dried sea lettuce hence the apt name. The asparagus is slightly crunchy and fresh. Next arrive a very pretty selection of trout skin with nut butter, raw pea and lemon aspin tartlet, prawn wrapped in nasturtium with finger lime. The non-alcoholic drink match is a jasmine, tonic with pink grapefruit. The little pearls give bursts of freshness welcome after the heat outside. Mookie smiles, “I really love the idea of a fruit juice match”. Little wonder given that I have never had a license to drive – great for my wine passion not so crash hot for Mookie. Our plates are cleared as we finish, the service is snappy. Ice oyster with beef tendon and mountain pepper is presented. The ice oyster is similar to a sorbet with a hint of oyster flavour and a lingering finish of honey – even though the staff assert that there is no honey but only sherry. Its a strange combination and doesn’t really work with my wine but it does counter point interestingly with the crunchy peppery taste of the tendon crisp.
Having been tantalised by the nibbles we wait eagerly for the first course proper. Mookie’s second match arrives – earl grey tea and strawberry which is wonderfully sweet and refreshing. The bergamot florals work well with the chilled broth of broad bean, strawberry, green almond with a sorbet of fig leaf and yoghurt whey. Continuing the “cool down” after the heat outside but also with a fresh crunch and slight sweetness, it makes for a lovely salad. I sit back, sipping Chardonnay, to watch the elegance of the floor staff, its almost like a dance. I smile to Mookie and she returns a smile. Our bread arrives, its nice to be one of the first bookings because the first dishes come fast and then the graduation between dishes slows over the course of the meal which is great, nothing worse than waiting when hungry or having to eat when you need time to digest.
The butter is fresh churned but not cultured giving it a fresh creamy but not cheesey taste. The bread is crusty – its been baked just outside and is very caramelised (a little too much) but such is the nature of baking with coals. The bread has a pleasant sweetness and almost damper like density which contrasts with the previous dish. I can really begin to understand the French obsession with bread when it is this good. I rarely eat bread unless dining out.
A short wait, we are asked if we would want any more bread but Mookie and I are both eager to continue our culinary journey through chef’s creations. Always hungry is the appetite that can only be sated by the new or different. Not to disappoint, a dish of calamari, black lip abalone (one of my favs), broccoli and blue mackerel arrives covered in nasturtium leaves with garlic flowers and swimming in broth. It is such a lovely delicate soup – the light saltiness of the broth, the leaves offering pepper and the abalone and calamari sweetness. I must say that these consomme’s really do it for me. Two are in my top ten dishes of all time. Nasturtium brings back memories of my childhood and my mother who would have them on bread with only a little butter. Somewhat akin to the ratatouille moment for Anton Ego in Disney’s classic foodie film of the same name. A simple dish yet elegant in its simplicity.
It looks hot outside, more diners arrive and they themselves look well cooked after the morning heat. They are greeted and seated and the dance begins anew for them. I watch the chef. He is constantly monitoring the tables and frequently gives notes to the floor manager. I also note how many of the chef’s behind him are using overlong tweasers to plate the food. Mookie is waxing lyrical about the juice – this course it is cucumber, lime and black mitcham soda.
The mixologist looks almost hyperactive in her exuberance each time she presents the next drink. Pumped I believe is the word. Possibly the adrenaline of a busy service. Mookie says the matches are sublime. Now she is served the next drink match of lovage, cos lettuce and granny smith apple. The artichoke, salt grass lamb washed with mussel liquor and citrus arrives. Its not my favourite, the tastes are all there but I just dont feel the gel as well as everything that has gone before.
Mookie contradicts me, she loves it – but artichoke is one of her favourites. I do enjoy the ice plant. It’s is a burst of salty succulent. Maybe its purely that the lamb doesnt work well with Chardonnay. I am however very much looking forward to red mullet, barbecued cucumber, watermelon and zucchini flower. I am not disappointed, a truly magnificent dish which appeals to me for many different reasons. Could this be greek influenced? I am lucky that my wine choice has work well with many of the dishes.
I literally cant stop eating this course until my plate is completely empty, not even a pause – delicious. Mookie has Sencha tea with rhubarb, citrus and smoked salt. Another winning combination for Mookie. We are now both starting to feel full the pause between dishes is noticeably longer – a good thing for us this far into the meal. I do notice with nearly all seats full, the speed of the first courses for the recent arrivals appears slower. A tip for our readers – early lunch.
The “pekin duck” arrives, wood roasted on the bone with quandong and dried liver (and some nasturtium flowers). The duck is actually a little sinued which makes for very heavy cutting. It’s not restricted to my own serving as Mookie comments as well on the difficulty with cutting the meat. The flavour however is lovely, the quandong has a crunchy acidity and the liver adds a rich flavour. The best part is most definitely the skin. Our plates are cleared. Mookie sips on her warm rooibos and honey tea.
The wait staff ask if we would like a break at the end of the duck but we have to be in Daylesford for our evening appointment so we continue on to the desserts. Milk, honey and mandarin accompanied by pineapple, coconut and orange sherbet in the drink match. It’s a pleasant palate cleanser. We continue on to the parsnip and apple. Really who would serve parsnip as a dessert? It’s a revelation! Who would have thunk it? This one I really must note down. Apparently the pink lady apple juice and chamomile works a treat to close out the dish. Really very surprising and delightful.
To finish up we nibble on some petite fours of rhubarb, pistachio, blood orange and preserved blackberry with an espresso to perk us up for the next leg of our trip. I tip my hat to the genius at play in Birregurra. Only a true visionary would create “haute cuisine” in the middle of the countryside knowing that “they will come”.