For my birthday this year Michael organised a surprise overnight trip to Birregurra, primarily so that we could eat at Brae. This high-end restaurant seems to have no trouble luring guests from Melbourne and even further afield thanks to the reputation of head chef Dan Hunter - even with sneaky preparation around 2 months in advance, Michael was only able to secure a weeknight booking.
The menu draws from local produce, some of it grown on site, and is a set number of courses. Having mentioned our vegetarianism on booking, the staff had this menu poised for us to peruse, asking that we alert them to any extra allergies or ingredients we wished to avoid. It listed 14 dishes - 6 appetisers, 5 main plates, 2 desserts and 1 petit four - at $160 per person, and included options for matched wines ($120 per person, which Michael ordered) or matched non-alcoholic beverages ($60 per person, my preference).
All of the appetisers could be eaten by hand, and it released me to enjoy the whole meal without worry of formality or handling the cutlery correctly. Asparagus spears were more crunchy than tender and seasoned with olive powder; summer blossoms decorated flax seed crackers but didn't offer much flavour; crumbly pastry shells held the freshest raw peas.
Nasturtium leaves wrapped up lively little parcels of barbecued corn and tamarind, garnished with native finger lime 'caviar'. My photo doesn't do justice to the succulent ice plant, coated in crystals of freeze-dried sake. A wedge of butter lettuce heart was dotted with rich goat's curd, and rice paper was fried into a bubbly cracker and seasoned with mountain pepper.
To drink with these appetisers, I was served a sprightly riff on champagne made of jasmine, tonic and pink grapefruit with more finger lime bursts.
Only after these appetisers were we offered bread. Brae bread is memorable, with the flour milled on site and the dough baked in a wood-fired oven out back. It has a thick, charred crust, and the centre is equal parts fluffy and substantial. The accompanying butter is airily whipped and tempting to scoop on by the tablespoonful.
Act 2 began with a wedge of avocado clothed in a milk skin, flavoured with corn, herbs and sesame. A cucumber and lime soda kept it light and summery.
Stepping up the richness, we had little potatoes in a comté (cheese) and amontillado (sherry) sauce topped with an egg yolk and paper-thin zucchini blossoms.
The accompanying kale and apple juice, served with a salted hazelnut praline rim, confirmed that I'll never get into green juice.
This dish of warm ricotta, nettles, mushrooms and brassicas dialled down the fat in favour of depth, with a mushroom-based broth and intensely flavoured, dehyrdrated mushrooms and green leaves that I plucked at with my fingers. It was well teamed with a cup of oolong tea.
My next two dishes came with more tea, this one their own smoky blend of Jin Mao Hou and toasted wild rice. I first drank it with a meltingly tender eggplant piece lacquered with white miso, served with dried grains and cured kelp.
Our final savoury plate looked a little lighter but still packed some punch. Barbecued tofu was suspended between silken and firm textures, and served with little Otway shiitake mushrooms and a black garlic puree. I was most taken with the fermented cabbage, which must have been dehydrated to attain such a papery texture.
The first palate-cleansing dessert layered powdered milk and dried milk skin with mandarin and a honeycomb made distinctively with honey rather than just caramelised sugar. My paired mocktail mimicked these sweet and tangy flavours with pineapple and coconut rimmed with orange sherbert.
The second dessert, named 'parsnip and apple', is something of a signature dish. The parsnip is roasted into a thick sweet cone, like a hardier brandy snap, and holds piped custard; the plate is dotted with dehydrated apple wedges. It was elevated by the paired tangy pink lady and chamomile juice, perhaps the best reason for ordering the non-alcoholic beverages.
Happy with my pink lady glass, I declined the offer of tea or coffee. Our petit fours were stout cookies of pistachio, rhubarb and preserved blackberry (mercifully lacking the blood that binds together the omnivorous version!).
Brae presented us with a spectacular meal, made all the sweeter for being a surprise gift. The courses are numerous and varied, and I left satisfied but not bloated. I found the food to be fresh and elegant, employing high-end tricks without descending into gimmickry. The paired beverages were expensive but enjoyable. Service was attentive, friendly, and very knowledgeable across the board. It all made for a very memorable trip out of town.
You can read more effusive reviews of Brae on petit miamx, Wine Drover, eat my words, Almost Always Ravenous, Ms I-Hua, BLK's Food Blog, One Fat Cow, Barley Blog, Invadercee, the foodie world, chasing a plate, Jacqui's Food Fetish, MAB vs. FOOD, wednesday, I'm Still Hungry, DELICIEUXPATE and Alphabet Pony. Reviews are more mixed on Spoonfuls of Wanderlust and Miss Caviar, and distinctly underwhelmed on Gourmet Chick and Mainly Melbourne.
4285 Cape Otway Rd, Birregurra
Accessibility: They've put some thought into it. There are wheelchair marked carparks connected to the restaurant by flat paths with gentle inclines. The entry is wide and flat, and tables are generously spaced throughout the restaurant. We received full table service. Toilets are gendered and accessible.