It’s a restaurant food fans nation-wide have been making the pilgrimage to over the past five years. In that time, chef Dan Hunter has built one of the most serious kitchen gardens in the country, complete with resident bees. He’s also made a real effort to transform the once-nondescript dining room into somewhere people will want to eat.
It’s a thirteen course degustation, a three-hour drive out of Melbourne and $285 a head with matched wines. (And drinking wine is something you’ll definitely want to do - the Mail’s cellar is a thing of legend.) Accommodation starts at $180 for a basic room, off-peak. So is it worth it?
It depends on your expectations. If you’re imagining 13 courses of uncomplicated deliciousness from food you don’t have to think too hard about, you might not get what you bargained for. The Royal Mail is a restaurant that puts experimentation and envelope-pushing at the forefront - sometimes at the expense of the diner’s ease. That means they’ll challenge you with tiny snacks, weird fats, scientific desserts and a lot of cold things.
Actually, the snacks might just be the highlight of the meal. Puffs of rice cracker dusted with powdered coconut and finger lime and showered in salmon roe are a perfect balance of sweetness and savour, popping and crunching. A bite-sized pig sandwich is all sticky with gelatinous tail meat, while a hand-sized sheet of crisped-up chicken skin is like all the best bits of a roast in one big chip.
As with any restaurant where pushing the boat with proteins and subverting textures is the name of the game, there are going to be things you love, and things you won’t. A tomato and prawn number with daikon ice and cinnamon basil bits is clammy, cold and gummy all at the same time. It definitely falls into the latter camp for us.
But then there’s the briny, deep-scarlet duck bedazzled with samphire and a side-dab of calamari cream. Proceed with caution when it comes to this fishy black balm: a deft hand will enhance the duckiness of the dish while a more enthusiastic attitude will result in a pungent salt party. Creamy, raw slippery jack mushrooms piled over a lump of braised sourdough scattered with tiny clover and native spinach leaves is light, sweet and delicate.
The repetition of more or less pure fat as the star ingredient on the plate over more than a couple of courses is a strong statement but can be a little hard going. A smoky blob of bone marrow crowned by pickled vegetables is chased a few courses later by crisp-and-golden suckling pig fat sandwiching scorched baby fennel and chicory. All this after those excellent fat snacks at the beginning, too.
Upending texture and flavour in an intelligent way is probably one of the hardest things to get right in a kitchen. But Hunter does it with scary ease. ‘Fallen fruit’ involves treating an apple with calcium hydroxide. It looks like a dried out old thing that’s been dropped on the floor, kicked under a bench and forgotten about but tastes like a slowly-and-carefully poached piece of fruit. It’s smart, it’s delicious, and out of the three desserts, it’s definitely the most interesting.
You probably wouldn’t find a more dedicated kitchen and floor team in the country. Every person from the dishie to the sommelier has worked hard to get here and works even harder to stay. Like the food, it’s a challenge that may not be for everyone, but in this, as ever, fortune favours the bold.