When your restaurant is a three hour drive from Melbourne, it’s wise to offer more than just dinner
Nothing beats leaving Melbourne and getting away to the country for a night. Destination – Dunkeld, a small shearing town in the Grampians, three hours west, similar to those all around it, population 400, with perhaps a couple of shops. Unlike neighbouring towns though, Dunkeld is home to the Royal Mail Hotel.
The hotel shot to fame under head chef Dan Hunter (2007-13) and was awarded three chef’s hats in 2012. And its stellar reputation continues under current chef Rob Wickens; the two-hatted restaurant is so popular it is open 7-days. But given Dunkeld’s geographical location so far from anywhere, diners have to stay the night, and will want things to do the following day. Dining aside, the hotel has tapped into this an introduced some diverse experiences for its guests to try.
Eat Drink Stay package
With this package you and a partner can enjoy a five-course degustation dinner and overnight stay in a deluxe room, a stone’s throw from the restaurant, with staggering views of Mt Sturgeon from your deck. In the morning, after your a la carte breakfast in the dining room, and a wander on the property (Mt Sturgeon has been a working sheep station since 1839 and remains so to this day) you can join a tour of the hotel’s extensive edible gardens learning all about their paddock to plate approach with one of the 13 chefs.
Degustation, more playful than pretentious
The five-course degustation is as delicious as it is fun, and can be served with matching wines (for an additional $90). Or, choose a wine from the 26,000 bottles in the hotel cellar (a separate building over the road which you can also do a tour of!). The friendly wait-staff enjoy guiding diners through the extraordinary, often tongue-in-cheek, menu. Take the amuse bouche – ‘egg and soldiers’ with a twist; the ‘soldiers’ were brioche, the ‘yolk’ a pumpkin custard and the ‘white’ a soy puree.
Hard to choose but the standout flavours from the meal were the linseed cracker with lavage butter, flathead with kohlrabi, pancetta and preserved lemons; wagyu flank with pine mushroom ketchup, and the palette cleansing feijoa cream was ridiculously good. Our taste buds were dancing when we finally left the dining room, happily sated but not over full.
Sleep then more play
After a great night’s sleep (the silence is noticeable), and a slap up breakfast the garden tour is just what you need. Robin Wickens’ vision is to serve only what the hotel grows and he’s already 80% there. The main kitchen garden is 2 acres of companion planted fruits, vegies and herbs, including poly tunnels to regulate temperatures.
As apprentice chef Kirra showed us around, she mentioned additional olive groves and orchards as well as 80 free range hens, all from Mt Sturgeon property which contribute to the menu, written daily according to what is fresh. Fertilisers and pesticides are nowhere to be seen, instead two resident ducks can be seen de-bugging the garden, snacking on slugs and snails.
More to life than food
If wine is more your thing, pre book a cellar tour with the sommelier of the hotel’s impressive wine collection housed in a spearate building over the toad, curated over the past 40 years.
For nature lovers, at 4.30pm each day (except Sunday), you can also meet the squirrel gliders, long nosed potoroos and Eastern quolls at feeding time, part of the hotel conservation department’s captive breeding program.
And if you’re there on a Wednesday or Friday, you can tour Allan Myers’ (owner of the Royal Mail Hotel) extraordinary 24 acre garden, the wall of which took 15 years to build!
The surroundings are so beautiful, with a map given to you on arrival of walks on the sheep station property, directions tot he old homestead, woolshed, bluestone cotttages, there's so much to explore – they've really made the drive (4 hours for us) worth your while.