TA­BLES Love thy neigh­bour

Ju­dith Elen finds an un­ex­pected gem in the Can­berra sub­urbs

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

HEN my taxi turns into what looks like a de­serted cor­ner of sub­ur­bia, I think I have the wrong ad­dress; per­haps the driver wants to check his di­rec­tory. I’ve taken a cab from the gallery side of Can­berra, across Lake Bur­ley Grif­fin to Camp­bell. I gaze out on the glare of parked cars around a small grass is­land, a few trees and a semi-cir­cle of sleepy lo­cal shops, and there it is, Lan­terne Rooms, opened in April last year by Josiah Li, whose restau­rant The Chair­man & Yip is a long-es­tab­lished in­sti­tu­tion in the cen­tre of the city.

More used to the push and shove of in­ner-city streets, I’m dis­cov­er­ing that Can­berra’s restau­rant scene is pep­pered with mem­o­rable eat­ing places in unas­sum­ing back­wa­ters. Tucked be­tween a newsagent, a small Boy Scouts hall and take­away shops, the restau­rant’s qui­etly dis­tin­guished fa­cade, with a black-and-white striped awning pro­tect­ing an ex­panse of shaded win­dows, sets it apart from its neigh­bours. I soon dis­cover it is an oa­sis of gen­teel Asian chic in this slum­ber­ing sub­ur­ban cul de sac. Only in Can­berra.

It is still quite early for the lunch crowd; there are two or three groups seated, and the waiter con­sults me on my pref­er­ence among the ta­bles. Set­tled in to a good spot with a view ev­ery­where, I gaze around. There is plenty to look at.

Whereas the ex­te­rior could be a dis­creet restau­rant in the French prov­inces, in­side has the re­laxed, el­e­gant feel of colo­nial Viet­nam. The space is open but strate­gi­cally screened. Pan­els, a cru­cial fea­ture of the room’s de­sign, have the dou­ble func­tion of shel­ter­ing din­ers in their own spa­ces without en­clos­ing them. The black-stained, lou­vred wooden di­viders al­low fil­tered views, light and air, without the im­me­di­acy of fel­low din­ers. The ef­fect is of a se­ries of semi-sep­a­rate rooms.

The tim­ber floors are dark and the walls of whitepainted wood. Squares of pri­mary red and blue glass framed in white on one wall, like light pan­els above a pe­riod door, add to the air of quiet gen­til­ity. The only other colour is from strate­gic flow­ers and the lanterns that give the place its name. Per­haps col­lected from around Asia, high-ceil­ing lanterns are of golden silk, oth­ers white and fil­i­greed.

The kitchen at the back of the restau­rant, like the rest of the de­sign, is open but semi-screened.

Af­ter my ini­tial warm wel­come, there has been no move to bring me a menu and then, once I’ve re­quested one, no at­tempt to take an or­der. The wait staff seem easy­go­ing in a friendly, self-con­tained way, but this is odd in a place so fo­cused on de­tail. I catch the waiter’s eye, give an ex­pec­tant nod and soon re­alise they thought I was wait­ing for a friend. I had orig­i­nally booked for two but had rung at the last minute with a change of plans.

All is ex­plained and had I not been so ab­sorbed with the decor I would have found out ear­lier. That clar­i­fied, sev­eral staff come to apol­o­gise for the wait and the mo­ment’s un­ease is quickly rec­ti­fied.

Turn­ing to the menu, I find a mix of Asian in­flu­ences. Malaysian chef Jef­fery Shinn in­fuses his dishes with the Chi­nese, In­dian and Por­tuguese-Malay nonya tastes and per­fumes of his home­land, but he has also cooked in Switzer­land and there is an elu­sive Euro­pean air waft­ing through the trop­i­cal mix.

I choose an en­tree of duck rolls and mar­i­nated veg­eta­bles with kaf­fir lime chilli dress­ing ($13.50) and

Colo­nial feel: Hid­den among nonedescript shops in Camp­bell, Lan­terne Rooms is a rev­e­la­tion while you can’t re­ally have too much duck in a meal I don’t want to be ob­ses­sive. I forgo a lus­cious-sound­ing par­cel of duck and taro served on mar­i­nated veg­eta­bles ($21.50) for my main and am next drawn to fish poached in gin­ger broth with pick­led mus­tard leaves ($21.50).

Sev­eral wines are avail­able not only by the glass and bot­tle, but by the half-glass, a bril­liant idea and ideal for a lone luncher to try dif­fer­ent la­bels.

Torn be­tween a Ka­puka 2008 Sau­vi­gnon Blanc ($8; $32) and a Sanc­tu­ary 2007 Pinot Gris ($8; $30), both New Zealand wines from Marl­bor­ough, I or­der half­glasses of each ($5).

The duck rolls ar­rive bite-crisp, with nice lit­tle mouth­fuls of duck meat and finely juli­enned carrot, baby rocket and red cap­sicum. They are sub­tly glazed, just sweet and just sharp, and leave a lovely, lin­ger­ing mouth feel. I’m try­ing the pinot gris first, and it comes in a slightly smaller glass than usual, gen­er­ously three­quar­ters full, so the half-glass doesn’t look odd.

My fish main course is suc­cu­lent and goes well with the sau­vi­gnon blanc. The broth is fra­grant, not too rich for a lunch dish, with a hint of co­conut and galan­gal; the veg­eta­bles, mar­i­nated and lightly pick­led, pro­vide a back­ground of green ac­cented with ten­der tomato pieces.

Com­pletely at home at my soli­tary ta­ble amid the comfortable buzz of con­ver­sa­tion, ev­ery now and then

Pic­ture: Kym Smith

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