Can­berra’s de­li­cious ap­peal

Aus­tralia’s cap­i­tal is an un­der­rated trea­sure trove for food­ies, from its fine din­ing to the re­gion’s largest farm­ers’ mar­ket.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste - By SUZANNE LAZAROO suzanne@thes­tar.com.my

IN­SIDE Can­berra’s two-hat­ted Au­bergine Restau­rant, filmy ful­l­length cur­tains fil­ter in just enough light to il­lu­mi­nate the bright gold of cal­en­dula petals, scat­tered on a swirl of creamy cheese fon­due on a Parme­san bis­cuit.

It’s the open­ing salvo in a de­gus­ta­tion from Ben Willis, one of Can­berra’s most renowned chefs; the night will flash by in a se­ries of sparkling dishes, each course up­ping the ante that lit­tle bit more.

These in­clude baby semi-dried car­rots with an al­most can­died sweet­ness, on a smooth cush­ion of beau­ti­fully garlicky chawan­mushi, with a miso-white sesame dressing, and a ten­der lamb rump with sweet­breads, sweet Cip­polini onions, sil­ver­beet and a melt­ing par­cel of Comte.

Each dish show­cases Willis’ in­no­va­tive bent and global in­flu­ences – he’s at home with ev­ery­thing from black gar­lic to Korean plum vine­gar – and is also grounded in a great love and knowl­edge of lo­cal pro­duce and peo­ple.

The en­tire meal is a strong sig­ni­fier of Can­berra’s own evo­lu­tion, from the straight-laced seat of gov­ern­ment and cap­i­tal of the coun­try to also be­com­ing a cra­dle of fine cui­sine, art and cul­ture.

In be­tween Syd­ney and Mel­bourne, it’s still the wellplanned city, built on three axes, that Amer­i­can ar­chi­tects Wal­ter Bur­ley Grif­fin and Mar­ion Ma­hony Grif­fin en­vi­sioned in 1913 – but all that ded­i­ca­tion to ef­fi­ciency and plan­ning has also seen it flour­ish as a gar­den-cen­tric city, with pock­ets of green wild­ness and ver­dant, hid­den nooks, a bur­geon­ing arts scene, an el­bow-graz­ing prox­im­ity to pas­toral wine coun­try charm, and a daz­zlingly eclec­tic din­ing land­scape.

And one of Can­berra’s run­ning jokes is truly ap­pre­ci­ated by this Malaysian: ask how far away any­thing is, and you’ll be told “ten min­utes”. No mat­ter where, no mat­ter what. And you know what? It re­ally is ten min­utes, or there­abouts. Bless.

Din­ing out on the town

From the el­e­gant but wel­com­ing charm of Au­bergine’s fine din­ing sen­si­bil­i­ties to the neon-lit, Ginza cafe-style Ak­iba, the funky buzz of Eightysix, and the global flavours of The Ham­let, Lons­dale Street’s food truck haven, eat­ing in Can­berra has a wide ap­peal and ver­sa­tile al­lure.

Din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences are bound by the com­mon threads of the boun­ti­ful and sea­sonal lo­cal pro­duce and the cul­tural in­flu­ences of the many, many eth­nic groups that have come in waves to Aus­tralian shores.

In its quiet Grif­fith sub­urb, Au­bergine’s de­gus­ta­tion menus are culi­nary crescen­dos, each dish sur­passed by the next.

A small bowl of lo­cal figs with Dory roe and salt cod bran­dade is scat­tered with the bril­liant cit­rus bursts of fin­ger lime and the ten­der green hearts of fresh lo­cal pecans – I’ve barely re­cov­ered my senses from the fan­tas­tic play of tastes and tex­tures when along comes a crispy-skinned bit of sand whit­ing, with a creamy, al­most gluti­nous bro­ken rice con­gee, but­ter­nut pump­kin, baby leeks, ginger but­ter and sun­flower shoots.

Au­bergine’s menus (four cour­ses for A$90/RM304) are a cross-sec­tion of lo­cal pro­duce, whether grown in Willis’ own Western Creek gar­den, sourced straight from lo­cal grow­ers and farm­ers, or picked up from the Fysh­wick mar­ket down the street. The award-win­ning cel­lar boasts over 500 wine la­bels.

It’s Can­berra’s most-lauded restau­rant, con­sis­tently get­ting two chefs’ hats from the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald Good Food Guide, and Willis’ cook­ing is just plain fine din­ing shock and awe. But the vibe is emi­nently warm and un-stuffy, the wait staff are as cheerful as they are knowl­edge­able, and the din­ing room buzzes with con­ver­sa­tion.

At the next table, a six-year-old pays homage to the se­ri­ous­ness of din­ing well with an elas­ti­cated bow-tie top­ping his shorts and shirt, and a group of young hip­sters sits across from an el­derly cou­ple, in evening dress. Good food doesn’t care about de­mo­graph­ics.

Bound­ary-bust­ing among crowd lines is found across the (char­cu­terie and cheese) board, but there are some places that do at­tract a pre­dom­i­nantly younger crowd. One of these is the one-hat­ted Eightysix in Brad­don, one of Can­berra’s funki­est in­ner sub­urbs.

Word has it that when it first opened in 2012, Eightysix had a some­what fre­netic vibe to go with its solid menu. Owner Gus Arm­strong is as charis­matic as ever, but these days, there’s a slightly calmer buzz in the long, nar­row restau­rant – and its food seems to be go­ing from strength to strength.

The most cov­eted seats are at the long bar over­look­ing the open kitchen; the only dan­ger is that you’ll see ev­ery­one else’s or­ders go­ing out too, and prob­a­bly ask for just one more plate of cau­li­flower with tangy goat’s curd, curry and co­rian­der leaves, dates and green chilli (A$19/RM64), or seared kan­ga­roo fil­let, cured with spices and cof­fee, with beetroot and or­anges­cented creme fraiche (A$25/RM85).

And the pop­corn and deep, dark caramel sundae (A$17/RM57) topped with an ice cream cone hat has been on the menu from Eightysix’s early days, with damn good rea­son.

If you can score a bar-top seat at the per­fect po­si­tion to di­rectly ac­cess both kitchen and bar, that’s the sweet spot. Eightysix’s cocktails are stel­lar; try a Si­cil­ian Hit (A$22/ RM74), made with Li­mon­cello, fresh rose­mary and bar­man An­drew Gal­braith’s own Un­der­ground Spir­its vanilla vodka (smooth as sin and twice as fun; Gal­braith also dis­tills caramel and hazel­nut vod­kas, and a gin in­fused with Tas­ma­nian pep­per­ber­ries).

Also fly­ing high on the foodie radar: Ak­iba, where a more ca­sual crowd snacks on “New Asian” shar­ing plates of prawn and chicken dumplings in black vine­gar spiked with ginger ($11/RM37), Josper-roasted oc­to­pus ($18/RM61) and plump, roasted egg­plant, split down the mid­dle and smeared with earthy, savoury-sweet miso, sprin­kled with puffed rice, pepita seeds and nori ($14/RM47).

The one-hat­ted Pial­ligo Es­tate Farm­house Restau­rant is a lovely din­ing des­ti­na­tion, set just out­side the city. But while it’s mere min­utes from the CBD, there’s a coun­try feel of wide open spa­ces, thanks to Pial­ligo’s 35 hectares.

World barista cham­pion Ses­tic, in front of The Cup­ping Room, where you can truly learn about cof­fee ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

Eightysix’s de­servedly pop­u­lar pop­corn and caramel sundae.

At the el­e­gant Au­bergine, Willis’ plates are snapshots of lo­cal pro­duce and global sen­si­bil­i­ties, com­bined to great ef­fect.

Pial­ligo’s gar­den pavil­ions are lovely spa­ces for din­ing and ap­pre­ci­at­ing the rolling vine­yards, or­chards and city sky­line far be­yond.

Ben­tSpoke’s sam­pler plat­ter is a great way to try a few of the craft brew­ery’s stag­ger­ingly di­verse ar­ray of beers and ciders.

Bar­tender Gal­braith putting the fin­ish­ing touches on a cock­tail at Eightysix.

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