To take advantage of the long three day weekend, I figured I hit up three restaurants off in one giant driving loop hitting Attica, Royal Mail Hotel and Loam in one epic driving adventure. And despite the late night meals, early morning wake up calls and hours and hours of driving, it was completely worth it.
I started off at Attica on Friday night. After a bit of a delay getting my rental car, I made it to the restaurant about 10 minutes late. The first thought I had was “no shit, this is where Attica is?” Having stayed at the Cullen Hotel (just a few blocks away) earlier in the year and remember getting lost looking for a few art galleries in the area, the train tracks brought it all together for me. But, back to the restaurant and the meal. Overall, it was excellent. The service was great and the food was spot on. My two favorite dishes were the spanner crab with shiitake broth and 12 different basils from the back garden. There were probably 8-10 lumps of sweet crab meet swimming in a clear broth with a deeply flavoured shiitake broth and crispy buckwheat kernels. What surprised me the most was the distinct differences in the 12 different types of basil. The two that are stuck in my memory were the lemon basil and the licorice basil. After that course, I never want to have regular basil again. My second favorite course reminded me of something my mom made as a kid growing up. It was a simple pickled cucumber with burnet and dried river trout sauce. I still can’t exactly put together how the flavours worked, but this reminded me of the simple cucumber sandwich I had growing up. I haven’t had a food memory like that in a while. About halfway through the meal the servers offered up a tour of the garden out back. In the back Ben Shewry was there with a drink apple, cucumber, thyme and a few other ingredients. I spent about 5 minutes talking with him which was really interesting. They let you wander around and taste whatever plants you wanted (mostly the 12 types of basil) and then had a homemade marshmallow and fire to snack on. Like I mentioned earlier, the service was fantastic. If you wanted to talk more about any of the dishes or wine, everyone was more than happy to go into further detail. I was also able look through a copy of his new cook book, Origin, and get him to sign it as well.
I woke up bright and early the next morning to drive to Dunkeld. I broke the trip up a bit by stopping off at Mount Langi Ghiran and Best’s Great Western wineries. I have a few 2000 ‘Langi’ Shiraz that I’ve been sitting on for a while. I was hoping to have someone more willing to knowledgeable or at least willing to talk about the wines at the cellar door to get an idea of how they might be drinking, but it was pretty a robotic tasting. I did pick up a few bottles of the current release though. The cellar door at Best’s Great Western had a bit more to offer. They have a pretty diverse tasting list, but I was mainly there to pick up a few bottles of the Bin 1 Shiraz that won this year’s Jimmy Watson trophy. At this point it’s only available at the cellar door in limited quantities. Touring the hand dug cellar was pretty cool as well. Built in the 1860’s it now houses what looks like the owners private cellar (behind a fence) as well as their ageing museum collection. I could see bottles going back to the early 60’s ranging from their Bin 0 Shiraz to pinot noirs. All with the thick dust covering you’d expect.
Dinner that night at the Royal Mail Hotel was one I have been looking forward to for quite some time, since 2009 to be exact. It was a hard decision between the omnivore and vegetarian menu, but I settled with the omnivore. Again, the dishes were excellent. The preparations were more simple than those of Attica but no less interesting or delicious. Given the opportunity to go back, I wouldn’t hesitate to do the vegetarian menu. The meal started out with three bites that really got things going well. Once of which was a bit of crispy chicken skin with a dried vegetable salt. I’m still surprised more places don’t serve chicken skin in some way shape or form. Some of the other highlights were the Flinders Island salt grass lamb. This was probably the cleanest tasting lamb I’ve had. It was unmistakable as lamb, but didn’t have any of the funky gamey quality it usually has. Just superb. The bone marrow and eel dish was a winner as well. I do think my favorite course that probably shows off what this restaurant is was an extra course that Chef sent out. It was just a garden salad of things picked that afternoon with a bit of sauce here and there. That’s exactly what vegetables should taste like. The most unique dish was a dessert dish where they turned the outer layer of a parsnip into a “pastry” shell. The same flavour, same crisp texture filled with some local blue berries, fennel and crème fraiche. A really unique, local way to present dessert. The wines they paired the courses at Royal Mail were outstanding as well. They had more Victorian wines paired with the menu but also choose some superb European wines. In between courses, I did take the time to stop off at the kitchen to talk to Chef Dan Hunter a bit as well. There must be nothing more gratifying as a chef than having a 5 acre garden to plant and cook whatever you want. Just to highlight the outstanding service when they brought a copy of the menu over at the end of the night, they even had the extra course and paired wine included in on it. I didn’t see the dish appear on any nearby tables throughout the meal, so they must have just printed the menu up before bringing it over. Nice little touch considering I hadn’t heard of the wine producer before but will definitely look into their wines now.
The next morning I was up bright and early to take the Great Ocean Road down to Drysdale for lunch at Loam. The 4 extra hours it takes going the long way was certainly worth it for the scenery. Lunch again, was a great way to cap off the eating portion of the weekend. When you arrive, they present you with a menu that is only a list of ingredients for the month and those highlighted are used that day. All you have to do is choose between 7 and 9 courses. But they let you know that you can always change the number whenever you want even going beyond the 9 if you so choose. The amuse was a single oyster leaf. I had seen these on menus before, but never had a chance to have one. And I was shocked at how much it did taste like an oyster. It had a bit of the vegetal green ness of eating a leaf, but beyond that was purse oyster. Some of these highlights were the confit tomatoes with shredded lambs tongue. Perfectly ripe tomatoes with a bit of crunch from the dried tongue. There was also an off the charts confit boneless chicken wing with kohlrabi and shiitake mushrooms. Again, everything was well thought out with unusual ingredients (usually herbs or greens) that I hadn’t seen before to finish the dishes.
After this weekend, I don’t think I want to eat at a restaurant if they don’t have their own garden. It was great to see what three different restaurants do with the same local attention to ingredients. Each was completely different than the other so it’s difficult to compare, but regardless I would recommend any of them. Getting to watch Djokovic take down Murray was a nice way to end the weekend as well. Though, the chicken tenders didn't quite match anything else I ate this weekend.
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