15 Edinburgh Ave Canberra, ACT 2601
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri 7am-late; Sat 8am-late; Sun 8am-4pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Accommodation, Bar, Breakfast-brunch, Late night, Licensed, Romance-first date, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 6287 6150|
A. Baker has always worked well as a space, somewhat counter-intuitively, given it's an eatery that you can also use as a route from one part of New Acton to another.
The central service area takes up most of the space, the tables are arranged haphazardly around it, in corners and outside, the ceilings exposing all their pipework and engine-room infrastructure. It works, I think, because it keeps things firmly relaxed and casual, which is what you want most times you dine out.
The walls still bear the ash-blackened marks of the fire that destroyed the inside of the historic building six years ago. It looks like so many faux renditions of city grunge but this time it's real and a reminder of a significant upheaval for some of the stalwarts of Canberra dining.
The doors are open to the garden out the back, which is looking lush and is a good source of herbs and salad bits for the kitchen. Many aspects of the set up, including the low lighting, work to good effect although tonight the music is grating, upbeat rather than relaxed.
One of the good things about A. Baker is its firmly local focus, although it's more obvious in the wine choice which is entirely local and well chosen, than the sourcing of ingredients.
Sadly, we strike out on our first wine choices from the list. They're out of Ravensworth Riesling, and out of the Mount Majura Silurian bubbly. But Collector Tiger Tiger Chardonnay ($12.50 a glass, $64 a bottle), from Tumbarumba, a very good maker and a very good chardonnay region, keeps us happy.
We order some cured meats (one meat $13, two $18) – truffle salami and De Palma capocollo. But annoyingly they come much later than the bread and olive oil they're supposed to be served with, and it's never wildly appetising to be presented with a big serve – it is substantial – of meat just by itself. The pungency of truffle always goes well with funky meat, but the cured meats are otherwise not wildly exciting. The bread is a chewy sourdough and doesn't taste as fresh as it might. The olive oil is very good, a grassy, pungent hit at the back of the mouth. The menu says it's the local Fedra.
Rabbit linguine ($23) comes with such lashings of butter that it dribbles down your chin and sits on the plate, but the flavour is delicate and it's a good combination with toasted crumbs and hazelnuts and tarragon. The menu says the butter is smoked, but happily it shows no signs of the rabid over-smoking that permeates too many commercial kitchens, and the delicacy shows sympathy for the rabbit meat, which always tastes of very little in its farmed incarnation. We would order this again.
The dish of local beets, whipped feta, smoked walnuts and black garlic ($21) is very pretty with its nasturtium flower and leaf, and yellow and red beetroot. The crumb tastes a bit like tuna flakes and I like it. But there's a weird blast of salt from somewhere, perhaps the feta, and the chilli is unusual. It's a palate-whacking dish not entirely well coordinated or subtle, and I'm not sure I understand it.
The mains are big, in fact, big serves are a mark of the meal, perhaps a reflection of casual dining where you tend not to munch through three courses.
Dutton Park duck breast with carrots, cherries and nasturtium ($34) is very well handled, the meat, and there's a lot of it, both bouncy and tender, crisp on the outside, great spicy flavours, and perhaps aniseed. It has a classic sweet sticky sauce, whole cherries which are very good at this time of year (our visit is early January), carrot puree, shaved carrot and roasted whole carrots.
It's a surprisingly small menu, just four entrees and five mains, so we manage to order most of it.
The roast kingfish ($32) is our least favourite. I like the pickled watermelon rind, and the crunchy fresh broad beans which are presumably deliberately undercooked. There's a startling citrussy sauce underneath, charred lettuce, and oysters on top. The fish flesh is hard to cut through although not difficult to eat. This doesn't feel like a well integrated nor especially delicious dish.
The pork belly ($34), though, is very moreish. It's a hunk of gutsy meat with crackling and a chilli-infused sauce, which the menu says is a chicken dashi broth with chilli oil. Alongside are hunks of swede and greens. There's a little pot of chilli tofu and we're not sure which dish it goes with but its sour heat appeals.
We have a mustard green salad ($9) alongside, which is full of pungent strong hot leaves, presumably sourced from the garden. It's hot in the mouth and heavily dressed with a sesame dressing and raw onion, which the menu describes optimistically as "crispy onion".
In desserts, the caramelised peach, cereal ice-cream and kaffir lime snow ($16) comes as beautiful warm, firm, well roasted sweet peaches, with a caramel ice-cream that tastes buttery and not wonderful, and popcorn irritatingly scattered on the plate. So it's part love, part not.
The A. Baker doughnuts, hazelnut ice-cream, chocolate and cornflake crumb and baby coconut ($16) has nicely done doughnuts, warm, appealing, large and the kind of doughnuts that don't make you freeze with deep-fried fear. The hazelnut ice-cream is nice; I'm reminded of peanut. The slices of coconut are interesting, although I'm not sure quite what they're doing here.
A. Baker is pleasant and certainly does better, and is more up to date, than so many mid-range restaurants. In all, it's been mixed.
Parts we like a lot, there's been some good treatment of difficult ingredients, but also dishes that don't quite make sense to us, and some we don't really enjoy.
The ultimate telling point is always would you return, and with A. Baker the answer, on reflection, is yes.