Anonymous review of Royal Mail Hotel
This review of Royal Mail Hotel in The Grampians is taken from our guidebook Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection Australia/New Zealand.
As grey kangaroos graze among the grass trees below our bedroom window, the last of the sunlight dances over the two monolithic mountains that act as full stops to the Southern Grampians. Rain squalls skid across a landscape recently transformed from russet to emerald and there’s a sense of renewal afoot in the small farming town of Dunkeld. It’s inspired in part by the Royal Mail Hotel, which is quickly gathering cult status among serious foodies.
We stayed at this pub turned boutique inn primarily to eat a 10-course extravaganza by chef Dan Hunter, who returned to Australia from Spain’s Mugaritz, one of the world’s top 10 restaurants. This tasting menu is spectacular, and the Royal Mail also has a superb wine list, from local back vintages of Best’s Great Western to some of France’s finest drops.
A three-hour drive from Melbourne, the Royal Mail is truly a destination restaurant. With its art deco façade, it sits on the main drag, right before we’d usually hit the accelerator to head further west, Mount Sturgeon looming dramatically behind. This isn’t an old Federation place with rooms above – the accommodation has been purpose built away from the hotel, tucked into gardens that seem like a botanical library of Australian natives, from Sturt’s desert pea to various banksias.
The aptly named Mountain View Rooms offer mesmerising panoramic vistas, framing the landscape (although the windows could do with a bit of a clean, as they’re speckled with dirt, like the face of a jackeroo on a weekend bender). Welcoming gestures such as a half-bottle of French sparkling and handmade chocolates (offered with some packages) warmed our cockles, but given this is a gourmet retreat, UHT milk came as a bit of a curve ball. Surely there’s a cow handy on the adjacent farm, owned by the same family, where a reputed 150 different vegetables, herbs and edible flowers are grown in the kitchen garden?
Trivial quibbles aside, the Royal Mail’s rooms rise above the usual pub egalitarianism, with decor that’s more rural pragmatic than city slick, subdued olive tones suggesting the colours of the landscape. This is a nonetheless comfortable setting, right up to the point where Mrs Smith tries to shower and the water remains stubbornly cold. Pity the man – or tap – that tries to get between a woman who’s just been in the car for hours on end and a hot wash. But sometimes things go wrong in ways that leave you wondering if the Grampians hosts gremlins, if not mischievous bunyips. It happens twice, but an understanding reception calms Mrs Smith with the offer of another room while the problem is fixed. The receptionist jokes later about Fawlty Towers. There’s a good-humoured warmth and professionalism to all who work here. Stuff happens. We don’t mind and they know how to soothe the bumps with unruffled generosity.
The evening heralds a mesmerising meal of culinary wizardry as Hunter’s team moves like a corps of ballet dancers around the open kitchen, placing tiny veggies and herbs on plates with tweezers. Each small dish is a complete picture that manages to be simultaneously ethereal and rooted firmly in the earth, from the opening gambit of a pretty smoked tuna consommé with sardines, jamon and radishes, to the follow-up: a nutty, malty mix of toasted rye with legumes and a sensual, runny egg yolk. Hunter produces a remarkable parade of contrasting textures and flavours, none more so than eel with beef tendon, the latter ingredient slippery and gelatinous, as if impersonating an eel. The following day, while visiting Brambuk, the Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Grampians National Park, we discover that slippery snakey fish was a staple food of the original inhabitants of the region, adding resonance to the dish.
Dinner at the Royal Mail is one of the finest experiences I’ve had in a long career of eating out professionally. Crisp, wise service and a galaxy of glorious wines only add to the lustre.
The following day we explore, heading to the Great Western wine region, home of two legendary labels, Seppelt and Best’s. We buy a bottle of Seppelt Silverband sparkling shiraz as a memento of Mrs Smith’s and my earlier walk to the pretty Silverband Falls in the National Park. Alas we’re too late for a tour of the 19th-century underground tunnels that form the Seppelt cellars, but it leaves time to visit Best’s, home to one of Australia’s finest shiraz wines, the Bin 0. Mrs Smith takes a shine to the pinot noir rosé and several cases are shipped home.
After a day venturing into the jutting and jagged sandstone landscape of the Grampians, we’ve worked up an appetite, which leads us excitedly back to the Royal Mail. The same kitchen knocks up a mean bar menu as well as fine dining, while its bistro fare straddles the middle ground. It sits right next door to the posher space, the demarcation being a lack of tablecloths and slightly less polished, yet equally sartorial, black-clad waiters.
After tapas-style plates of tuna empanadillas and small pigeon pies – both delicious, but Mrs Smith has a fear of pastry overdosing – comes the serious business of a smoked pork belly with spiced plums and maple syrup starter, then a main of slow-cooked lamb with stewed eggplant. The portions are as expansive as the countryside and this is rustic yet no less clever fare; the wines are equally deft.
We retreat to our room, the complimentary wireless keeping us in touch with an outside world we’re in no hurry to embrace. I’d like to stay one more night, if only for a game of pool in the bar and a wagyu burger. Hell, I’d stay in a bark humpy to eat here again; mercifully though, the Royal Mail offers slicker head-resting options for the pleasure.