Update: We attended this venue in May 2019 and some details may have altered since then.
It takes a full day to dine at Brae. A meal at Victoria’s most highly decorated fine dining institution fits a micro holiday into the hours needed to get out to the gently sloping paddocks of Birregurra (an easy two-hour drive from Melbourne), dine in rural splendour at an appropriately relaxed pace at Dan Hunter’s famous farmhouse restaurant, and return home. You could make it a genuine mini-break should your budget stretch to the additional $635 for a night in one of the six guest suites on site (breakfast included), but it’s hard to think of a more pleasant day trip than one centred around the country’s pre-eminent dining experience.
You will be enveloped in a style of hospitality so convivial and assured that five hours will fly by while you exist in a state of suspended bliss. Life is complicated, but lunch at Brae is perfect in a way virtual reality can only dream of. Your seats are comfortable, the wood fire is crackling, and your table sits in its own orbit so that conversation is had, not overheard.
It’s easy to forget that the sea is only a 45 minute drive away from these fertile fields, but gentle reminders arrive in the form of a crisp pastry shell filled with tender rock lobster capped with sea lettuce and sweetened with corn. Or a chargrilled prawn head that you wrap up in a fresh slice of kohlrabi and eat like a taco. It turns out that is just the opener for an even more curious dish hidden in the bowl beneath, a broth of chia spiked with sharp pops of dessert lime and scampi roe that comes in a shade of blue rarely seen outside of cruise ship cocktails and killer pythons.
More coastal interlopers into this pastoral setting arrive in the form of the iced oyster. A riparian diorama has a single oyster shell set amongst rocks and seaweed, but this is no freshly shucked bivalve. The meat is dehydrated and ground into a powder; the brine is made into a creamy, sweet ice cream; and powdered sherry vinegar and sea lettuce form the grassy cap on this thorough reimagining of how refreshing an oyster can be.
Your meal here is an epic journey with easy stretches, hairpin turns and sharp inclines. For every elaborate piece of creative wizardry there is an answering salve of traditions respected, like a perfect fillet of rock flathead at sea in a creamy, buttery sauce with butter poached turnips and Warrigal greens. And then the tide turns and you are served a king hit of nostalgia with Dutch cream potato cakes, scalding hot from the fryer so as to melt the cultured cream you spread on top and cap with trout roe from the Yarra Valley.
It’s nothing so aggressive as a whirlwind, and even the most challenging dishes plant their flag firmly in delicious territory – surprisingly you’ll find some of the most divisive items on the non-alcoholic pairing, where they play with sweet and savoury, smashing together ferments, flavours and infusions that often touch the divine (a pink-hued sipper of rosella, spiced pear and coconut), but also bring you crashing back to earthiness with dashi-spiked lapsang souchong and bottlebrush.
One might be at a loss were it not for the steady guidance of the staff here, who clearly walk the walk of this produce-loving establishment. There’s not a curveball question about technique or origin that they aren’t poised to answer on the spot, but if you don’t actually care about how they achieved the bold, brash flavours and body in a locally produced savagnin they won’t regale you with the story of how it is kept in a 3,000L barrel, each harvest added to the mix since 2008 to create complex layers and savoury oxidation. We cared; we asked.
We’ve come a long way since Brae burst onto a dining scene with a nascent interest in sustainability and produce-driven dining. Now those ideas are more familiar and we barely blink as a deep-fried curl of parsnip adds its autumnal warmth to an apple dessert, or when a locally brewed beer takes the spotlight midway through a degustation’s matched wines. But familiarity does nothing to diminish the spell that is cast by this idyllic dining experience. It’s expensive, it’s far away, and it’s worth every dollar and kilometre you will invest. The returns are genuinely priceless.