Inside Canberra’s two-hatted Aubergine Restaurant, filmy full-length 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 well-planned 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 orange-scented 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.
Along with the bountiful market garden and orchard – which supplies large quantities of gorgeous fruit and veg to the kitchen – there’s also an olive grove and a vineyard, as well as the Pialligo Smokehouse, which churns out top-notch, award-winning bacon, sausages, pork loin and smoked salmon
While the natural stone and recycled wood farmhouse is a popular dining space, it is the little garden pavilions that prove an irresistible draw, clever shelters that shield you from a stiff breeze, but leave sunshine-drenched views intact.
Platter after platter of great produce given lots of love and respect sail forth from chef de cuisine Brendan Walsh’s kitchen; these include zucchini flowers with chilli-laced ricotta and black garlic (A$5/RM17 each), a platter of fish from the smokehouse, with dill mayo (A$25/RM85) and creamy-centred burrata with the last of the sweet tomatoes for the season and a rocket pesto (A$14/RM47).
If a quick bite in a very informal, family-friendly setting is what you’d prefer, The Hamlet on Braddon’s Lonsdale Street is where all the cool food trucks go to hang out.
Here, nosh on everything from Mr Papas’ Peruvian street food to Broddogs, the popular off-shoot of the local Brodburger. There’s every-thing from Indian to Vietnamese to coffee and pastries, too.
Also in the heart of Braddon, BentSpoke Brewing Co on Mort Street has been drawing a steady stream of craft brew enthusiasts since it opened in 2014.
The two-storey brewpub has huge silver vats making up the scenery behind the bar; its mugs have runneth over with more than 300,000 litres of 50 different beers and ciders from co-owners and highly-decorated brewers, Richard Watkins and Tracy Margrain.
They also have a production scale brewery in the northern suburb of Mitchell.A$16 (RM54) will net you a sampler of four pours of its popular beers on tap. Highly recommended: The Barley Griffin Canberra Pale Ale, which shows off soft fruit and toasty, biscuity notes, the Crankshaft IPA, which has the bitter florals of hops down pat, and the hand-crushed Brindabella Cider, which is just a burst of Granny Smith and Red Delicious apples – plus, pure sunshine.
Should you happen to find the silver staircase railing a bit hot, that’s just because the brew can be run between upstairs and downstairs vats via said railing! The wooden plaques on the front of the main bar are an honour roll of retired beers, including the Blazing Saddle, which was brewed with red chillies for the Malty Cultural Festival, and the Delhi Beer Belly, infused with cardamom and cinnamon.
Other hand-crafted beer outlets to check out include Zierhold Premium Brewery (in Fyshwick and at the University of Canberra), and the Wig & Pen Tavern and Brewery at Llewellyn Hall in the Australia National University; the latter has been a Canberra beer icon since it opened in 1994.
Gastronomic exploration isn’t confined solely to the dining (or drinking) experience – and can be both interactive and educational.
At The Cupping Room in Civic – by master roasters Ona Coffee, and one of World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic’s cafes – you can book a 30-minute cupping session.
The cafe is named after the process industry pros use to objectively judge coffee, so it’s only natural that there’s a strong emphasis on coffee appreciation and knowledge here; plus, Ona’s Project Origin is not just about sourcing sustainable coffee, but also about bringing in only the certified best, as scored by an international jury.
For anyone looking to judge coffee, it’s important to go through the entire 30-minute process – the coffees can change drastically in the cup over that time, and many only show their defects at the end.
A cupping session will teach you to consider acidity, sweetness, bitterness, balance, finish and texture – and odds are, you’ll never look at a cuppa the same way again!
Then hop on over to the tiny, spartan-but-friendly Frugii Dessert Lab on Lonsdale Street, where you can get more than a scoop or two of boutique ice cream from owner John Marshall. The gregarious, hilarious ice cream maker is as generous with his knowledge as he is with the fresh ingredients he loads his confections with, so he hosts regular ice cream-making courses after hours.
And while the favourites like chocolate are always on tap (scoop), one of Marshall’s most popular items has been a durian ice lolly! That one sold out in no time, a run no doubt fuelled in part by home-sick Malaysians.
The ice creams, sorbets and gelatos here are the real deal – Marshall makes all the bases in-house, tempers his own chocolate and flavours his ice creams with real fruit etc.
Frugii caters for vegan, nut-free and gluten-free lifestyles as well. The gorgeous, floral-citrus lemon myrtle flavour, salted caramel, chocolate and mint flavours have been deservedly popular, but Marshall’s endless experimentation has yielded lemongrass, passion fruit pavlova and gingerbread as well (and most unexpectedly – seafood laksa, black garlic and a couple made with Indonesian and Chinese herbal remedies!).
Growers, sellers, makers and shakers
One of the best ways to meet Canberra’s food-loving population is to wander into the blue dawn of a Saturday at the Capital Region Farmers’ Markets. Start the day buoyed by the aroma of coffee or the freshest orange juice, just-squeezed by farmer Mick Auddino, who rotates his 44 hectares so that he can get citrus all year round, plus a custard- or jam-filled doughnut from Bombolini – while you stock up on fresh produce.
There are over 100 stalls to browse, and for the most part, they are all makers or growers – so you’re getting your food from the source. The stallholders all undergo careful curation and regular inspection by market directors Tony Howard and Clive Badelow to make sure of it.
What started 14 years ago as a Rotary Club project to help local farmers face down a particularly bad drought, has now turned into a beloved local weekend ritual.
It’s also a library of sorts, holding a myriad fascinating stories – from Canberra Urban Honey’s Mitchell Pierce, who at 22 is Australia’s youngest urban commercial beekeeper (and currently off on a New York adventure), to the young farmers whose initial 40 chickens expanded to a huge brood of 6,000 – so they decided to turn some of their eggs into lovely breads.
Families of farmers and generations of growers mingle with die-hard bakers and pie-makers at the market, making it a wonderful cross-section of local produce – and local heart.
Next week: Look out for the wines and wherefores of ACT, with a gourmet trek just outside the city.