Dan Hunter's collected so many hats as the nation's indisputably premier regional chef he could open a spin-off county millinery (a boutique Akubra franchise, perhaps?) in the main drag of Birregurra, the town that's home to Brae, his stellar restaurant. But while Hunter may remain the gastronomic toque of the town and beyond, we doff our own lids to Hunter and his wife and business partner Julianne, for being, as well as leading restaurateurs, no mean hoteliers. Brae includes six, now well-established, luxurious and stylishly-contemporary suites with rustic references providing the postprandial convenience of not having to slip behind the wheel after one of the chef's epic wine-matched lunches or dinners.
You'll find Brae on a hilltop just outside of Birregurra, a charming, beautifully-preserved township of just over 800 people, 130 kilometres south-east of Melbourne. Directly to the south, just under 70 kilometres away across the scenic Otway Ranges, is Apollo Bay, located on the Great Ocean Road, with this year marking 100 years since construction commenced on the famed sea-hugging artery.
The elegant, modern-day restaurant is sympathetically built around a historic brick cottage, Sunnybrae, the centrepiece of Hunter's ever-expanding and mature kitchen gardens-cum-farm from which Brae's chefs source many of its organic ingredients. There's even a small wheatfield that provides ingredients for Brae's homemade, woodfired organic sourdoughs. To reach their suites to and from the restaurant, guests weave through native gardens, studded with contemporary sculptures, and by an old shed with the potential, may we boldly suggest, to be turned into a cafe or food store (if only the Hunters didn't already have enough on their imaginative plates).
At up to 60-square metres or so in size, we'll allow the Hunters to call their architect-designed accommodation not rooms but suites. From the outset the ambitious couple were determined not to skimp on quality, accoutrements or, for that matter, sustainability. Presciently, for the construction of the suites (built three years or so ago), recycled materials, solar energy, harvested rainwater and a worm farm-based wastewater system, delivering zero net emissions, were employed. Inside the suite, after passing through an outdoor area with tables and chairs, there's a king-sized bed enveloped in organic cotton linen, a skylight directly above for star-gazing with the suite even boasting underfloor heating for chilly nights. One of the most offbeat, though welcome features, is a turntable for vinyl-spinning along with a cocktail bar and a temperature-controlled wine fridge, while occupants of the generously-sized, strategically positioned bathtub enjoy paddock and Otway views.
Brae is not a restaurant to sate hunger pangs – not that you'll leave feeling starved – but a sensory, even artistic, experience with the odd and exquisite, degustation-style dishes on the minimally-described menu not for faint-hearted tastebuds. But since this reviewer's last visit a few years ago, there's a sense that's Hunter's cooking, while no less serious in intent and execution, is more relaxed and yet more confident. There's even wit in the form of Hunter's take on the classic Australian potato cake, or scallop – a winning Dutch cream potato cake with cultured cream and brook roe. If you're visiting for lunch and staying the night, an optional supper plate, delivered to your suite, is available.
Before departing, take a morning saunter around the flourishing kitchen garden, though informal tours with Brae's staff can be arranged. Do also allow for some time to wander the short but perfectly-formed main street of Birregurra with its row of 19th and 20th century buildings, today variously hosting a hotel, cafes and antique shops. The town is the perfect base from which to explore the Great Ocean Road as well as its surrounding ranges and where you'll also find some other Good Food Guide-listed dining experiences such as Anglesea's Captain Moonlite and Lorne's Ipsos.
Lunch or dinner complemented by a night's stay at Brae's suites is a pairing perfected in heaven. Although it represents an expensive outing, there's a scarcity of world-class restaurants on these shores that combine this calibre of fine dining while offering superior, intelligently-conceived accommodation in a beautifully bucolic setting.
Brae's guest suites start from $615 a night including breakfast with degustation lunches and dinners from $275 a person. Brae Restaurant, 4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra, Victoria. Phone (03) 5236 2226. See braerestaurant.com
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE
Dan hunter's masterful dishes naturally dominate any visit to Brae but luxurious suites make for a great Australian country dining experience.
We're not sure we could tackle an encore of Hunter's menu on a day two but a one-night stay at Brae can feel a little insufficient.
Anthony Dennis stayed as a guest of Brae and Visit Victoria.