Monday, June 25, 2018

Dispatches from the Royal Mail – Wickens restaurant delivers the goods

I’ve always been interested in the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, at the southern tip of the Grampians, and its varied offerings. It’s been one of Australia’s best regional restaurants for many years and I am particularly attracted by regional restaurants. I took advantage of a regional road tour through Victoria to Adelaide to update my first visit from several years before. In every respect the experience was worthwhile. The attention to detail and focused application was apparent, from the signature restaurant to the wider range of services it provides.

On a recent regional road tour through Victoria to Adelaide and back, I had a number of dining experiences which were memorable – each in their own way. These ranged from a breakfast of sourdough toast with poached quince, pistachios and honey at Big Table at the renowned Adelaide Central Market – surely one of Australia’s great wonders – to a counter meal by a roaring fire at the Gilbert Hotel in Adelaide city and finished up with an excellent Wagyu corned beef with onion sauce, capers, peas and mash and fusilli with bolognese ragu at the Mountain View Hotel owned by the Pizzini family in Whitfield in the King Valley.

‘Fit for purpose’
The high point of the whole trip were two meals other than these, one during the trip and one soon after arriving back in Canberra. The first was at Wickens at the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, at the Southern tip of the ancient Grampians Mountains that rear up out of the flat plains around.

Stairway to heaven - the walkway to Wickens restaurant

The second – which I will write about in my next article – was at the local Pulp Kitchen restaurant in the heart of Ainslie, one of Canberra’s inner north suburbs. Each of these two meals were very different, in very different restaurants. Yet they were both excellent in their own way, ­‘fit for purpose’ as they say.

The Royal Mail kitchen vegetable garden - the largest of its kind in Australia

The signature of food – a garden, wine cellar and restaurant at the foot of the Grampians
The first experience was an encounter with the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld and its signature restaurant, Wickens. This is one of the hottest restaurants in regional Victoria – even making it into the popular media by being featured on Master Chef a couple of weeks after the trip.

We have stayed at The Royal Mail before, several years ago, and we stayed there on the way to Adelaide this time – in the cheaper, but still very comfortable, end of the accommodation spectrum, across the road from the hotel. On the way back we had a Mountain View Room which looked directly at the tail end of the Grampians that loom up behind Dunkeld.

In the morning after a late breakfast, we went on a 45 minute tour – that runs daily – of the Royal Mail kitchen vegetable garden, the largest of its kind in Australia. It was very impressive and we took away some essential ingredients in the form of ideas for our own modest vegetable garden at home.

‘We went on a 45 minute tour…of the Royal Mail kitchen vegetable garden, the largest of its kind in Australia. It was very impressive and we took away some essential ingredients in the form of ideas for our own modest vegetable garden at home.’ 

In the afternoon we joined a tour of the wine cellar – essentially a very large insulated and air conditioned stone building, full of 26,000 bottles of very expensive wine. It has the largest collection of Burgundy and Bordeaux wine in the Southern Hemisphere. It's behind the Dunkeld bookshop, which used to be the butchers shop owned by the father of the successful Dunkeld local who established the modern Royal Mail as we know it. We sampled a couple of whites and reds, a mix of French and Australian, which rounded out the viewing nicely – good practice for the future.

The wine cellar with its 26,000 bottles and the largest collection of Burgundy and Bordeaux wine in the Southern hemisphere

It was very interesting and made me keen to plan a future tour of the deep cellars at Seppelts at Great Western, an hour up the road – first excavated in 1868 and three kilometers below ground. It was also good preparation for a planned trip to France.

The main event – fed by a kitchen garden beneath mountains
The last event for the day was the five course degustation dinner in Wickens. We made our way down a lighted walkway from the main building to the new purpose built restaurant at the rear of the property. I was impressed with the walkway, made of thick solid hardwood timber planks – I think I’ll be copying that idea somewhere in my garden.

Royal Mail lamb, watercress, carrots and bergamot - drawing on the restaurant vegetable garden

Then it was time for a quiet introductory drink in the anteroom before the restaurant itself. I had an Electrico fino - a 1983 Toro Albala Don PX Gran Reserva Ximenez Jerez from Spain - and my fellow traveller had a glass of Normandin Mercier cognac.

‘The meals [we ate] were very different, in very different restaurants. Yet they were [all] excellent in their own way, ­“fit for purpose” as they say.’ 

To whet out appetite, we started with a series of canapés – duck rillette with pomegranate, wattleseed onion bhaji, buckwheat with tuna mayonnaise, beetroot tart and roquefort with quince jammy dodger (a biscuit filled with jam). This was followed with scallops with nasturtiums and feijoa, then charred flathead with stinging nettle and herring roe.

Five course degustation menu.

Sampling a range
The courses went side by side with a series of interesting wines. Since we were sampling by the glass we thought we’d test out as wide a range as possible. Between us we tried a 2011 Trimbach riesling from Alsace, a 2015 grüner veltliner from Austria, a Grampians region blend of marsanne, roussanne and viognier by The Story Wines (who interestingly for several years sponsored an annual short story competition with Overland magazine) and a Dog Point sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.

‘I kept recognising produce from the kitchen garden I had toured in the morning. Even though it was billed as a five course meal, there were at least four other parts.’ 

Then we moved onto the heavier dishes – firstly great ocean duck, with green rhubarb and hispi cabbage (also called sweetheart cabbage, sweeter and more tender than the cabbage we usually use). Presumably the cabbage came from the restaurant garden, because during our earlier tour it was clear they had planted a huge variety of flourishing cabbages. After this we had royal mail lamb with watercress, carrots and bergamot. With this I had a pinot noir from Tarrington Vineyard in Henty, Victoria.

The kitchen at Wickens restaurant that delivers the goods

I kept recognising produce from the kitchen garden I had toured in the morning. Even though it was billed as a five course meal, there were at least four other parts. Even a modest side dish, like the bread with malt flavoured butter, was excellent. There is a also an eight course dinner, but that was a bridge too far for that occasion.

For the final dishes we moved to desserts, with jerusalem artichoke with hazelnut chocolate, followed by poached quince, acorn cream and rotten leaf ice cream. With that my companion had a botrytis noble riesling dessert wine from Craggy Range in Hawkes Bay New Zealand, a winery we had visited in 2016, and I had a final glass of the same cognac she had to start the evening.

To finish up we had a small treat of jelly baby vegetables – like a contemporary version of after dinner mints – but without the mint or chocolate. To top it off, at the end, guests went away with a packet of rocket seeds for their own kitchen garden.

‘It was very impressive – made up of lots of fabulous flavours in a stunning modern building. There is a also an eight course dinner, but that was a bridge too far for that occasion.’ 

It was very impressive – made up of lots of fabulous flavours in a stunning modern building. The restaurant was superbly designed and spacious – you could park a car between the tables. In the kitchen we met Robin Wickens, the British chef who gives his name to the restaurant and who was responsible for overseeing the new building that houses it. In fact, it's such a family affair that his wife, who works in the parallel, more informal restaurant, Parker Street Project, was plying us with coffees at breakfast the next day and praising Dunkeld as a fine place to raise children. The kitchen looked stunning, light and spacious – one dining option is to sit at a table in the kitchen itself, surrounded by industry and purpose. Given the tendency of modern chefs to gravitate to managing culinary empires rather than working in their own restaurants, I was pleasantly surprised to find the chef actually on site.

A final present for the diners.

We wouldn't regularly book for something like this but did so because it was part of a present for a significant birthday for my fellow traveller and because we’ve always been interested in the Royal Mail and its offerings. In every respect it was worthwhile. The attention to detail and focused application was apparent throughout. All in all, it was a full and many-layered night and we went to bed both full and late. The main impression of the stay – signature restaurant meal, lower key breakfasts and dinners in the more casual eatery, drinks in the bar, the tours and the accommodation – was the comprehensive nature of the experience. It was well thought out and well executed and thoroughly pleasant.

See also

'tableland' on Facebook – life on the land and at the table
'Life on the land and at the table, the companion Facebook site to this blog, for brief and topical snippets and vignettes about land to table – the daily routine of living in the high country, on the edge of the vast Pacific, just up from Sydney, just down from Mount Kosciuszko', 'tableland' on Facebook.

Better and better – a cold night in at Pulp Kitchen
‘After a regional road tour through Victoria to Adelaide and back – packed with produce of every kind – the best recipe for happiness at home was a quiet spot in the corner at local restaurant Pulp Kitchen, enjoying a very different meal in a very different restaurant, after almost two weeks of very good – and sometimes exceptional – food and drink’, Better and better – a cold night in at Pulp Kitchen.

Catching up in the kitchen – Pulp Kitchen ups the ante
‘I have been here twice since it changed hands and the capable crew from Restaurant eightysix in Braddon took over this Ainslie favourite, tucked away down the side of the shops. Each time it has been very good and very enjoyable. I used to really like the previous incarnation of Pulp Kitchen and went there many times, but this is even better. I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen for many decades and it made for an excellent night in a buzzy, busy venue in the heart of the inner North’, Catching up in the kitchen – Pulp Kitchen delivers the goods.

Provenance - knowing where good things come from
‘It took me only five years but I finally found my way to Provenance, the legendary regional restaurant established by chef Michael Ryan in Beechworth in 2010. Provenance is widely considered one of the best restaurants in regional Victoria, in a tiny state that contains many good regional restaurants. I had been meaning to eat there since it was established and given how regularly we travel to Beechworth and its surrounds I was amazed I hadn’t been earlier. It took some time but it was worth it’, Provenance - knowing where good things come from

Travelling overseas in your own country ­– Austrian winter lunches in the high country
‘The pay off for cold Canberra mornings is that with no cloud during the night the days are clear and blue and brilliant. That’s when Canberra comes into its own. That’s the time to enjoy a long luxurious lunch with friends. The ACT is so tiny that is doesn’t take long before you have to cross the border in your quest for food and drink and spectacular landscapes. These outings are the slices of life in between the restaurants and bars where you go out in public. This is where the farmers markets and the home-grown produce and the local vintages come together in the privacy of your own home. With moments like this, even winter starts to look attractive’, Travelling overseas in your own country ­– Austrian winter lunches in the high country.

Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo
‘In winter your mind turns to food - well, it turns there anytime, but perhaps more so in winter. I can’t remember how many years I have been coming to Grazing restaurant, in the tiny historic town of Gundaroo, just outside Canberra – it seems like forever. In the time I’ve been coming here Prime Ministers have risen and fallen, Governments have teetered, illusions have shattered. On a Sunday recently, I ventured out from the cold of approaching winter on a clear, blue day and went there one more time for food, wine and firewood. I wasn’t disappointed’, Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo.

Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back
‘I seem to spend a lot of time in the small Italian and Sons restaurant in hipster heaven in downtown Braddon, with its equally small bar annexe, Bacaro, at the rear. It’s so good and so pleasant that it’s easy to forget the other parts of the Italian empire. The flagship restaurant, Mezzalira, is across the the city, near the National University. It’s in the fabulous but somewhat neglected though stately Melbourne Building, with its Italianate arches and colonnades. I sometimes think that if suddenly the world was about to end (a bit like contemporary times) and I was offered the choice of only one cuisine until the crunch, I’d have to choose Italian. That way I could die happy,’ Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back.

Ester – the sweet smell of success
‘Because the high country is adjacent to the low country, it takes only three hours to drive from the nation’s capital to the nation’s financial capital. In the early to mid 1990s Chippendale in Sydney was a suburb you travelled through to get somewhere else. All that is changing in a big way, with plenty there to explore. A sure sign of these times is eatery Ester, a restaurant that reflects the focus of its name on the science of food with some intrepid experiments in the culinary arts’, Ester – the sweet smell of success.

In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts
‘Tucked away in a corner at the Ainslie shops where it’s easy to miss entirely ­– in the heart of the suburb know as the Red Centre for it’s exceptionally high Labor vote – is an unexpected delight. The location has hosted a series of less than successful ventures but this most recent has been an unqualified success. Who would have thought that a cafe hailing from Brittany could attract such a crowd. The secret of success is that it focuses on what it does and it does it well. You can park yourself inside the small venue or outside if the weather is fine and pick from some unexpected sweet pastries, throw down the odd glass of French wine or eat buckwheat pancakes or baguettes. The cafe also runs to daily specials that can be very unexpected. Long may it reign over us – Rule Brittany rather than Rule Britannia’, In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts.

We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii
‘I realise I may have just become a statistic. I have a suspicion that I have eaten more sorbet, gelato and icecream since local Canberra icecream outlet Frugii opened in Canberra’s Braddon perimeter than I have eaten in my whole previous life. Tucked away in hipster heaven, it keeps churning out flavours, in an ever changing smorgasbord of coldness’, We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii.

A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven
‘On a bustling Friday night in hipster heaven, I popped into my favourite Canberra restaurant, Italian and Sons, planning for little more than a quick bite to eat. I managed to get my favourite spot – when I’m not settled comfortably in Bacaro, the adjoining bar out the back, that is – sitting in the window, watching the action on the street. I headed straight for a real blast from my Adelaide past, part of my earliest discovery of Italian cuisine – saltimbocca. Then I beat a path down Lonsdale Street to Frugii, Canberra’s own dessert laboratory. What is happening to this city? It’s getting cooler by the minute and it’s not just the icecream or the approach of winter’, A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven.

Peas in a pod – food takes off
‘Pod Food is in the heart of the slightly ramshackle gardening and nursery hub of Canberra, Pialligo , adjacent to the burgeoning exercise in urban growth called Canberra Airport. It was always the place you went to get large pots and even larger apples. Pod Food was always good enough – but now it is something a whole lot more impressive. On a rainy Friday I entered through their marvellous cottage garden entrance way to sit on the covered and contained outside deck. The entrance to Pod Food, formerly part of an operating nursery, is the sort of garden I eventually want to have. It felt highly suitable sitting at the entrance to the Australian high country as the rain came down, drinking the fine product of another high region on the opposite side of the world’, Peas in a pod – food takes off.

Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven
‘It had been quite a week and I had been crushed by too many encounters with the crazy world of Centrelink as I fulfilled my long list of aged care responsibilities. I needed cheering up so last night ate out at the venerable Italian and Sons, the very first of the many funky venues which now enliven Braddon. My attention was drawn to the rare appearance of vitello tonnato. My imagination had been captured decades ago when I was a young boy by seeing the recipe for the dish in Margaret Fulton’s classic cookbook. I finally tried it in a tiny restaurant in Florence, during my first visit overseas, after a stint at the massive Frankfurt Book Fair in 1989. This most recent one was the best I have ever eaten outside my own home – well, perhaps the best anywhere. This is a favourite place, probably my most favourite in Canberra. Coming here always makes me feel happy and what more can you ask?’, Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven.

Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century
‘On a day and night which was bitterly cold – as cold as Canberra has been this year, with the hint of snow clouds overhead – I was reminded why I live here. As we wandered along after a full day of cultural institutions and design events, looking for somewhere to eat we impetuously popped into Restaurant Eightysix and even more impetuously were able to get a table. I had forgotten reading somewhere that famed long-former Adelaide chef, Christine Manfield was here for the month, cooking up an Asian-inspired menu. How much better could it get?’, Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century.

Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo
‘Where the market gardens that supplied Canberra as far back as the 1820s used to be a small fortune has been spent turning 86 acres overlooking the Eastern end of Lake Burley Griffin into a superb regional restaurant, Pialligo Estate Farmhouse Restaurant. It made for a tremendous birthday lunch in a spacious airy and light space, full of exciting food treated well. I couldn’t take my eyes off the copper guttering and downpipes. I thought all the loose copper in the world had already been stolen but clearly it’s still available. It’s quite clear that even though work is still being finalised, when it is finished it will be a spectacular addition to the nation’s capital and the region’, Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo.

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