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Photo Credit Glenn Harris

The Brae Restaurant, Australia’s Good Food Revolution

May. 11th, 2020

It’s just before eight in the morning and there is a slight frost in the air. Behind a 100-year-old farmer’s homestead are cords of chopped wood and a rustic outdoor oven. Dan Hunter is there preparing loaves of sourdough bread for today’s lunch. He takes the risen loaves out of a pan and coats them with cracked wheat; wheat grown on his field and milled that day. Between preparing loaves, he checks on the batch baking in the woodfired oven, carefully watching for it not to burn.  Dan Hunter is one of the top chefs in the world and this is the way he starts his day at Brae, a revolutionary restaurant hell bent on creating new ways for us to think about food. 

Photo Credit Colin Page

Brae is the gallic word for gradual hill. The name could not be more fitting for the location, far away from the outreach of suburbs and urban sprawl on a 27-acre plot of farmland. The location is in Birregurra, a sleepy one-horse town a 90-minute drive away from Melbourne, where you are more likely to see cows and sheep than you are people, 

Photo Credit Colin Page

This is not just a place that you would casually pop in for lunch. Lunch at Brae is a special occasion in an out of the way degustation destination for international foodies. The gastro-temple holds the 44th position in The World's 50 Best Restaurants, as the Good Food Guide 2020 Restaurant of the Year, and has received just about every relevant culinary accolade both internationally and across Australia. For the gourmand, it is a must-have dining experience, for others, Brae is destined as an aspirational placeholder on their culinary bucket list. 

Photo Credit Glenn Harris

Brae opened its door in 2013 as the magnum opus of chef and owner Dan Hunter. After stints at the helm of the top restaurants in Australia and Europe, he could have easily created a restaurant in Melbourne or Sydney, much more convenient to reach for his diners.  However, Chef Hunter wanted to create something different. A place surrounded by the food that is on the plate. To do more than talk about farm-to-table as an en vogue food trend but to be the farm and the table.  

Photo Credit Colin Page

Upon arrival you’ll pass an orchard of olive trees and citrus, apples, and pears before seeing what appears as a farmer’s cottage atop a knoll. From the outside it’s a simple tin roof ranch house with a large wrap around porch that’s just missing the rocking chairs and a tray of lemon iced tea.  A short stroll away are acres of produce with everything from squash and strawberries to beets, carrots, tomatoes and potatoes and even beehives producing honey. In the mornings before the restaurant opens, is where you’ll find chefs foraging with their hampers to collect what will adorn their guests’ plates a few hours later.  

Photo Credit Colin Page

The restaurant is mainly open for lunch so that guests can see the farm and produce in the daylight. Midway through lunch, guests are encouraged to take a break, let their meal settle, and wander through the gardens and perhaps see the ingredients from the dish that they’ve just eaten. 

Photo Credit Colin Page

For most of us, the word sustainability is a buzz word kicked around by millennials that pretty much means that they recycle their soda cans. But It is so much more than that and it’s really about being responsible stewards of the planet, looking at our personal impact and how we live each day, and more importantly, what we leave behind for the next generation. There are restaurateurs who lead the way showing us the right way such as Dan Hunter, clearly one of our generation’s sustainable food leaders.  

Photo Credit Glenn Harris

What Brae grows on their organic farm is what is on the menu, so dishes are seasonally based on what is available. In fact, 90% of the vegetables, fruits, and even wheat are home grown. Chickens provide free-range eggs and there are beehives around the property producing honey. As a sustainable farmer as much as he is a chef and restaurateur, Hunter is loath to waste and finds creative ways to use what’s left behind, storing for later use, or using as an ingredient in another dish or, if not usable, composting. Brae uses collected rainwater for irrigation as well as drinking water and solar panels provide the power.      

Photo Credit Glenn Harris

But Hunter is to quick share that being a good Earth citizen is not about being self-sufficient, it is also about community. He works with local organic producers who provide meats, wild-caught fish and seafood, opting for small scale family run ethical producers over mass production suppliers which invariably riddle their meats with hormones and antibiotics. One such is Sommerlad, an artisan provider using a rare breed of chicken, no longer widely produced as it is more expensive takes longer to mature. This small producer doesn’t sell just legs or breasts either, he sells the whole chicken so as a result the Brae includes the entire chicken in their menu planning.    

Photo Credit Colin Page

Inside, the restaurant dining area offers a Scandinavian-like clean aesthetic with fetching artwork and around 14 tables. The room eventually fills with well-to-do couples, small families and groups of friends. 

Within view is the bustling kitchen. Inside is a small army of chefs, many of whom will surely lead their own Michelin star level restaurant one day, glad to learn from the master at the top of his game. Like one of their nearby beehives, there is a flurry of activity as pots steam, oven doors open and close, and somewhere something is sizzling. Sous Chef Damien Neylon does the plating, working with the precision of a neurosurgeon; in place of a scalpel are his kitchen tools that appear to the laymen as long tweezers, eye droppers, and a left-handed spatula.   

Photo Credit Colin Page

The Brae dining experience is a three-hour culinary journey. The 10-course degustation lunch offers a parade of culinary eye candy on small plates, just beyond a morsel, as it is about taking in all the flavors and sensations and not becoming satiated after a few dishes. Like the ambiance each dish is exquisite without being overly pretentious. This is clearly haute cuisine but in the oddest way there is a simplicity in each dish, nothing feels trite, forced, or gimmicky. 

Photo Credit Glenn Harris

Brae’s menu favorite is their Prawn and Kohlrabi which has its own set of surprises. The fried prawn head is served on a Kohlrabi leaf while sitting atop a second dish hidden from view. It is to be eaten like a taco, with the hands, and the crunchiness, textures and saltiness of the prawn is superb yet unusual to the western palate. Once eaten it reveals beneath the second half of this dish; a colorful mix of mussels and tomatoes swimming in vegetable broth.  It is at that point you realize the magnitude of the meal that you have embarked upon. 

Photo Credit Glenn Harris

Much like the meal, the service is in alignment, nearing perfection. The restaurant manager, sommelier and each server are without exception switched on, knowing the ins and out of each dish as if they were a chef understudy, ready to step in at a moment’s notice to prepare it themselves. They are just shy of cultish, have definitely drank the Brae vision Kool-Aid, and seemingly want you to love the food as much as they do. They are there, always observing yet never over the shoulder. Drop your napkin, within seconds its noticed to be replaced without drawing attention.

Other whimsical dishes follow including Hunter’s take on fish and chips. A fluffy potato pancake accompanied by sour cream and bright orange rainbow trout roe. A far cry from its shark and bake cousin found in the greasy spoons along the nearby Great Ocean Road.   

Photo Credit Glenn Harris

Although the food is the star of the show, the supporting cast is an eclectic mix of wines that range from an elegant NV Pierre Péters Cuvée de Réserve Grand Cru Brut Champagne to the Savagnin from an obscure winery in the boondocks. The Between Five Bells Petillant Naturel Savagin is from an organic small batch winery that only produces several barrels from their few-acre vineyard. Every year does not produce a viable vintage you may try it, love it, and never find it again. The beverage pairing takes a lot of risks but somehow gets it right, matching flawlessly to the nuance and complexities of each dish and even if it means pairing with a craft beer or juice cocktail. 

The presentations are inventive without being a distraction such as the pork jowl barbequed with smoked eel on a bowl under smoking pine needles, akin to robata grill.  And unless you grew up around the Australia gourmet scene, the foreigner may find many of the indigenous ingredients unfamiliar, such as the whipstick wattle, aniseed myrtle, and desert lime to name a few. 

Photo Credit Glenn Harris

The concept of creating a sustainable kitchen with a focus on reducing waste literally plays out in the next plate before you with the Sommerlad chicken from the aforementioned organic poultry producer. Here a trio of chicken dishes is served beginning with the breast, roasted to juicy perfection with golden crisp skin along with zucchini and its bright yellow flowers. On another plate is fried chicken, dark meat flavorful and slightly picante. The third take is a cannoli, made with a mouse of chicken liver showing how Hunter adroitly uses the entire chicken.   

Photo Credit Colin Page

Several desserts then make their way to your table including their renown parsnip and apple followed by the sweet-tooth pleaser Macadamia and caramelized chocolate ice cream sandwich. There’s also another dessert plate there to teach a subtle lesson.   With absolutely nothing done to them, other than organizing them on the plate, are just-picked strawberries, blackberries and a cut plum, indirectly telling us that as spectacular as the meal may have been, the ingredients are what’s most important. 

Photo Credit Colin Page

Brae is a destination and after a long and leisurely meal, guests may want to make the night of it, especially on weekends. Brae has six, five-star level suites with black slate floors, rich wood paneling, a skylight and fetching contemporary artwork. The creature comforts are in place including an uber-comfy bed and posh furnishings and outside living areas ideal for taking in views of the rolling hills of The Otways or sharing a bottle of Pinot Noir before turning in for the night. There are artisan snacks and items for breakfast the next day as well as an available gourmet supper.  

Aligning with Brae’s vision, the suites are designed based on sustainability. Constructed of recycled materials, using solar energy, harvest rainwater and a worm farm waste treatment system allows guests to sleep better knowing their stay is carbon neutral.

Photo Credit Colin Page

Like the restaurant, the suites focus on the details with what millennials and generation X will only know from a museum or a YouTube video. An actual record player with and exquisite collection of real albums from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue jazz to 70’s rock with Fleetwood Mac, Joni Michel, David Bowie, and Grace Jones.  In this era of Tictoc, MP3s and Spotify, an evening of playing classics from the soundtrack of our lives on a Thorens retro turntable with yes, 33, 45, and 79 RPMs speeds, is nostalgic bliss and a just one of the many special moments to be had at Brae.   

Photo Credit Glenn Harris

The Brae Restaurant  is about slowing down and rethinking what it means to eat good food.  In this era of drive through toxin-filled fast food, Brae allows us to take it down a notch to savor and think about food. At Brae, Dan Hunter has created a culinary respite of haute Australian cuisine well worth your time and going out of the way for. 

Glenn Harris

Glenn Harris is an accomplished journalist focusing on international travel, fine dining, and luxury lifestyle events. His wanderlust has taken him to over 105 countries where he is constantly straying off the beaten path uncovering new and exotic finds. He particularly enjoys seeking out lesser known travel gems and places to stay, dine, or experiences to capture. ...(Read More)