People who know about the culinary delights of the Royal Mail Hotel are prepared to travel three hours from Melbourne to dine there. Overseas travellers also make the journey into the Western District of Victoria: the word has spread far. The Royal Mail Hotel has been a two hatted restaurant for some years now and continues to win annual awards. The dining room, and the more affordable bistro, are definitely on the foody itinerary.
The Bistro, now called the Parker Street Project, is open every day, whereas the fine dining restaurant, with 5, 7 and 9 course set menus, is open for dinner from Wednesday to Sunday and lunch from Thursday to Sunday. We visited on a Monday and were delighted to find well priced and stunningly good food at an affordable price in the Parker St bistro. Under its present incarnation, with new chefs and a revitalised menu, it is even better than the last time I visited in 2009.
The key to the success of the hotel is not simply the dedicated world-class chefs, assistants and trainees who work here, but the vibrancy of fresh, organic produce. The Kitchen Garden, which was established in 2009, is the largest hotel garden in Australia. Run on organic principles, it spreads over more than an acre. Eighty per cent of the vegetables, herbs and fruit used in both the dining room and the bistro, comes from this huge productive garden. Chefs pick twice daily: it’s their larder, green grocer and inspiration.
The head gardener, Michelle, will tell you which flowers the chefs love best, ( for instance, society garlic, viola, nigella, cornflower, nasturtium ) and what wonderful beer they are now making with the Verbena. Most of the produce grown here are heritage vegetables and rare herbs, which are not generally available to chefs. Michelle uses a number of organic practices ‘such as using ducks to control pests like slugs and snails and using compost derived from vegetable waste, grass clippings, spoilt hay from chicken coops and animal manure from nearby farms to build up soil structure and provide nutrients.’ She also has fabricated wire cages to protect some crops from the ducks and white cabbage moth, has made circular shade cloth surrounds for blueberries, encourages early tomatoes with wind and frost surrounds, does some experimental planting in hot houses, and trains berries onto tall wire strained structures. The whole tour is an inspiration. If you are a keen vegetable gardener, you must not leave Dunkeld without a visit to this garden. Ask questions and learn. And try to get your tour when Michelle is on duty, if you are a garden fanatic like me. The chefs lead the tours on the other days. Tours cost $15 per person and last around 45 minutes. A staff member will drive you to the site, given its location some distance from the hotel.
Take your own tour of this amazing kitchen garden by opening this media slide show of photos separately.
Staying at the Royal Mail Hotel is a treat, with private suites facing the grand view of Mt Sturgeon, a large swimming pool for hot days, and great walking, which start within the hotel grounds. If you don’t wish to splurge, the caravan park has spacious powered sites for $25 a night, which are set on a shady creek, and also has cheap overnight self- contained cabins. Dining in the restaurant is rather special, but you will also do very well in the bistro. The new Parker Street Project, is managed by Stephen, a friendly, hospitable young man who really loves his job. Enthusiastic staff make a huge difference here.
More details about the Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld, Victoria, Australia can be found here.