Unless you have a private jet and spend your summers yachting in the Whitsundays, a visit to The Royal Mail Restaurant is a bit like getting married. You will probably only do it once, and afterwards you may wonder where all your money went.
Awarded three hats by The Age Good Food Guide, The Royal Mail has a formidable reputation for the quality and seasonality of its ingredients, with much of the produce being harvested from the hotel’s own 1-acre kitchen garden. Renowned Head Chef Dan Hunter was undoubtedly a major creative force behind the venture, though, and his departure last July surely heralds some uncertain times ahead.
Situated in the sleepy town of Dunkeld and with bookings required months in advance, this is not somewhere likely to pick up much of a passing trade. The dining room is unremarkable, reminiscent of a 1960s rec centre, and holds tables for the restaurant as well as the more moderately priced Bistro.
The Bistro, located closer to the kitchen, was busy when we were there and with large floor to ceiling windows alongside many of the tables, seemed in some ways like a more pleasant setting. The few restaurant tables, distinguishable by their thick linen tablecloths, were only partially occupied and, with the noise and view of the Bistro so close, the ambience was confused. We felt a strange and uncomfortable mix of elitism and that awkward sensation when you arrive at a party and realise you weren’t invited. (What, that hasn’t happened to you? Just me, then.)
We elected to try the full degustation menu with wine pairing and, being a fussy meat-eater, I chose the vegetarian menu. Kicking off with an undoubtedly beautiful-looking dish of asparagus and rye (oyster and roe for the meat eaters), flaxseed, nettle and garden blossoms, we were suitably impressed with the visuals but somewhat underwhelmed by flavours. This was the theme for the rest of the evening unfortunately, with a few highlights serving only to exaggerate what was lacking elsewhere. (Saying that, we may decide to name our first child after the Jerusalem artichoke with hazelnut and triple cream – it was out of this world, but sadly absent from the vegetarian menu.)
Dessert, which usually seals the deal for me, was frustratingly disappointing, although the beetroot and mandarin, cocoa and walnut was an interesting combination and provided a tantalising hint of the chocolate that we were both craving.
No contest; the winner here was the wine. The expert sommelier was happy to chat about vineyards and wine growers, even knowing entire families by name. The wines managed to distract from some of the more average dishes and there were several moments of vinous bliss, where conversation tapered off and gave way to silence and then appreciative mmm-ing noises. Once again, there seemed to be more variety and perhaps more thought put into the omnivore wine pairing, but maybe that’s just a case of the grass always being greener.
I have no doubt that this used to be once of Victoria’s seminal gastronomic experiences, but alas, no more. Hopefully The Royal Mail can find its feet again with new Executive Chef Robin Wickens at the helm, but with the bill running to almost $600, I won’t be there to find out.