Read our writer's views on this property below
The accommodation is lovely at the Royal Mail, but upstaged by the celebrated cuisine, writes Kate Armstrong.
IT'S all about the food. And the rural environment. As much as we like the accommodation at Royal Mail Hotel - large windows, flat-screen TV, massive bed and a patio with sweeping views of Victoria's Grampians mountain range - we are here for the fare, sourced and grown locally.
We're in the one-horse town of Dunkeld (population 450), 280 kilometres west of Melbourne in the Grampians region in rural Victoria, and now on the map thanks to the Royal Mail Hotel's reborn prominence.
Historically, the pub was an important link for the Cobb & Co. Royal Mail service; pastoralists, shearers and croppers have propped up the bar since the mid-1800s. In 1997, Melbourne QC Allan Myers renovated the hotel (along with the historic Mount Sturgeon property nearby). The new-look "Mail" comprises local sandstone and floor-to-ceiling glass. Its entrance gives way to a contemporary, airy space. And these days you're more likely to see BMWs than utes parked out the front.
Visitors can stay in the Mail's luxury accommodation options: comfortable rooms on the hotel grounds; at the nearby, heritage-listed Mount Sturgeon property, including renovated shearers' cottages; or in apartments nearby.
Head chef Dan Hunter hopes customers are "open-minded and enjoy themselves. And [that they] leave their hang-ups at the door."
Ready for anything, we choose the 10-course degustation "menu omnivore" (a vegetarian option is available) and matching wines; these range from French champagne to sauvignon blanc from Geelong, two hours away. It's a Wednesday night and the place is humming; we are told it's booked out for months in advance.
This cuisine has an immediate "wow" factor: Meat that isn't meat but artichoke in disguise. An egg yolk cooked in a test tube at 62 degrees (the temperature at which protein sets, our waiter informs us) served with a bed of nutty legumes. Duck ham with pink and blue flower petals, tiny green leaves and miniature vegetables.
Hunter challenges the label of "molecular gastronomy"; he insists his cuisine is about produce, not methods. "It's a label given to the style of food - it appears to be chemistry-based," he says. "Ours is produce-based."
Therein lies the restaurant's important point of difference - wherever possible, Hunter sources his produce from the hotel's own kitchen gardens: orchards, an olive grove and the chef's personal obsession, the hothouse.
Here, thousands of micro-plants (organic herbs and vegetables) are nurtured especially for the Royal Mail's restaurant.
Plans are afoot to open the gardens to clients; we are lucky enough to visit the plots. Familiarity with the garden enhances our dining experience; we have seen firsthand the effects of plant to plate. It's an eye-opener.
"We have very personal objectives which fit in with being in a rural environment," Hunter says. "In a basic restaurant sense we want to give customers pleasure and experiences they may not have had - through food.
"In a broader sense, I want to work in an environment that is close to production, close to getting harmony and affinity with the surrounds. To give people a sense of where they are and what's going into their mouth."
And so far, what goes into our mouths is different, indeed. The sea salad, lemon and lychee - a fine rectangle of calamari topped with a crisp salt marsh plant with a hint of foam - is like something you'd serve up to King Neptune. John Dory and celeriac. Jerusalem artichoke, triple cream cheese and chive. Lamb, eggplant and chlorophyll (a smudge of spinach). The desserts are unique - an explosion of textures and flavours - cocoa ice; pistachio log with chocolate ice-cream, sprinkled with hazelnut and honeycomb crumbs.
The floral flourishes are those of an artist but Hunter says this is more often for flavour and he doesn't visualise the dish as a painting: "It's always food on a plate but [presented] how it might look in its natural sense," he says. "I tap the petals out of a container and move, say, only two of them.
"If you look at a forest, not all trees are upright and the leaves don't fall in the same place."
From our table we gaze beyond the starched white cloths and line of wine glasses into the open kitchen. Here, Hunter and his team bend over plates, concentrating intensely. With surgeon-like precision, they meticulously plate up the food, adding the micro-leaves with tweezers; these have been cut with nail scissors only hours before.
"We get into the zone," Hunter says. "I want something to sing when it hits the plate."
Indeed, as we leave five hours later and slightly wobbly, we're the ones singing. Songs of praise.
The writer was a guest of Royal Mail Hotel and Botanica World Discovery Tours.
Where Dunkeld is 280 kilometres west of Melbourne (about three hours). 98 Parker Street, Dunkeld; (03) 5577 2241, royalmail.com.au.
How much The menu omnivore degustation is $160, menu vegetarian $130. Accompanying wines: $115 (Open Wednesday to Sunday from 6.30pm). Accommodation varies from Garden View rooms, from $165 a night, to Deluxe Mountain View rooms from $340. Other options include two-bedroom apartments from $305 and a four-bedroom house for $565 a night. Mount Sturgeon Homestead sleeps 12 and is available from $940 a night. Mount Sturgeon also has bluestone cottages from $210 a night.
Top marks The view in the morning from the comfortable, spacious rooms.
Black mark Dodgy loo flush and outside security light shining into room.
Don't miss Saturday afternoon cellar tours with the hotel's sommelier ($15; bookings are required).