CANBERRA: ALL I N THE FAMILY
Canberra has a hip new place to sup and sip. Joe’s Bar is on the ground floor of East Hotel, located at the Kingston and Manuka divide and across from the Kingston Hotel, or The Kingo to those in the know. While the latter is all about steaks and schnitzels, pool tables and beers on tap, Joe’s Bar is a welcome addition to Canberra’s revamped cocktail bar scene, which is fast rivalling state-capital metro offerings.
When I lived in Canberra for a while during the final years of primary school, you’d have thought yourself rather cosmopolitan to have scored a strawberry milkshake with a striped straw at the Manuka shops. East Hotel director Dan Bisa laughs when I tell him this as his family takes its Canberra roots back several generations, to when grandfather Giuseppe arrived from northern Italy to work on the Snowy Mountains scheme. Joe’s Bar has been named for the father of Dan and sister Dion Bisa, the hotel’s assistant general manager and also a director of this family-owned property that prides itself on a personalised welcome and a quirky, non-corporate atti- tude to running things. The bar has already proved a hit with papa Joe, pollies from nearby Capital Hill and neighbourhood drop-ins, as well as hotel guests.
The Bisa siblings say they wanted a sociable place where friends could gather and not “a concept bar” that happened to be attached to a hotel. To achieve this look and atmosphere, they hired designer Kelly Ross of The Gentry and she has not held back from incorporating a swag of bold elements, from seating and lighting to a rippled and contoured “concrete curtain” that references the brutalist, unadorned style of those big and blocky civic buildings in Canberra. Ross sourced dramatic hanging lights from South Africa that fall at varying levels like beaded skirts made from what look like metal blind pulleys, while a chandelier has been fashioned from empty Sambuca bottles by Australian glass sculptor Ruth Allen.
Mismatched furniture ranges from big Coco Republic leather couches to metal-edged bar stools and little wire side-tables in vivid colours that also serve as additional seating. Shelves are laden with Murano glassware twinkling in reds, golds and greens and a feature wall is painted in a bold tone of magenta. The bar is in leather-finished granite, with stools lined in front and a well-stocked display of bottles behind and, at 10m long, is of a rather serious size. This is the domain of clever mixologists, or mixmasters as my father would no doubt have preferred, back in the strawberry milkshake days. There are excellent bellinis (a nod to Harry’s Bar in Venice), icy Peroni beers and Canberra and regional wines by the glass (and Italian, too, of course, including a Vermentino from Tuscany, described as a “riesling on steroids”) to accompany a menu of dishes designed to share.
Cheery moustachioed chef Francesco Balestrieri, Rome-trained and Canberra-wed, considers himself a local now and champions parish produce, such as Fedra olive oil, grown, pressed and bottled at Collector, 50km north of Canberra. Many of the cheeses and air-dried meats, however, are from the old country and the likes of prosciutto and bresaola hang in a cool cabinet near the bar. Piccoli assagi (small delicacies) include a Joe’s antipasto platter that features relishes such as pickled baby fennel and smoked baby corn puree and a moreish bowl of polenta chips tossed with sea salt and rosemary and served with a rich gorgonzola sauce. Progress to piatti di casa (house specials) and there are pasta dishes and polpettine (meatballs) made with pasture-fed Cape Grim beef that have the right amount of heartiness for chilly Canberra nights and come slathered in a sauce of vineripened tomatoes. For the truly ravenous, a 48-hour slow-cooked sous vide wagyu beef brisket is served with charred polenta and porcini butter.
There’s nothing overly dainty or too on-trend about the food; it’s robust, full of flavour and harks to a tradition of rustic fuelling fare, but do save a spot for tramezzino al gelato, a sinfully good dish of house-made vanilla-cream gelato in a sandwich of Sicilian-style pistachio cookies.
A customised version of the Joe’s Bar menu is also available in guestrooms and I recommend a stay at East Hotel for myriad reasons, not least the convenience of kitchenettes, cleverly concealed laundry facilities, allwhite bathrooms stocked with organic Appelles toiletries in apothecary-style packaging, and the always-welcome sight of a Nespresso machine. The monochromatic decor is brightened with bursts of mulberry and orange, teal and mustard, and retro chairs and couches have buttoned backs and Scandinavian lines. With the sleight of hand of a clever designer, there’s maximum storage and facilities without sacrificing a sense of space across 140 guestrooms and studios, which even include connecting kids’ cubbies with bunks and beanbags, junior-sized furniture and xBox 360s.
If further evidence is needed of the Bisa family’s sense of community, carers or relatives who may unexpectedly need to stay overnight in the national capital to assist Canberra Hospital emergency patients can access free accommodation at East Hotel on a space-available basis. “It is an honour to partner with the Canberra Hospital Foundation to enable us to support families at such a crucial time,” say Dan and Dion.
Returning to that lobby level, the long foyer, too, is well conceived and welcoming, with clusters of seating, rugs patterned with big discs of colour and cruiser-bikes lined up for guests’ use. Perhaps a leisurely cycle beside Lake Burley Griffin, a spot of springtime blossom viewing, and then repair to Joe’s for a sunshine-coloured aperitivo, a killer negroni served in a chic tumbler or a reviving grappa? Si, grazie.
Joe’s Bar, on the ground floor of Canberra’s East Hotel, main; the sociable lobby atrium, above right