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.
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.