Exhausted? They must be

Kirsten Lawson
Head chef of Mocan and Green Grout, Sean McConnell, is leading the charge of restaurants in New Acton.
Head chef of Mocan and Green Grout, Sean McConnell, is leading the charge of restaurants in New Acton. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

This time last year, we were reflecting on a slew of collapses and sales, from Dieci to Pulp to Alto. A year later, we're catching our breath at the whirlwind of openings.

It would be an overstatement to suggest this reflects optimism among restaurateurs. Far from it; many are suggesting the couple of years as the toughest in their experience. Even Graham Hudson at Silo, one of the best and constantly busy, said business was down 10 per cent this year on the previous. And federal cost cutting is likely to bring more contraction since when spending is tight, lunch is the first thing to go. I mean, can you see a restaurant with a name such as Fringe Benefits and a hefty big-tab lunch trade opening in Canberra again?

When we do eat out we are spending less. Two years ago, the average spend at a restaurant was $59 a head; this year it's $54. And fast food is the winner - up 23 per cent over four years, while restaurant spending dropped 9 per cent (figures from a Commbank Signals study and the Dimmi Annual Dining Index).

Jamie's Italian is one of many new restaurants to open in the capital over the last year.
Jamie's Italian is one of many new restaurants to open in the capital over the last year. Photo: via Facebook

Our guess is that the local flurry of openings is more about the discovery of a new way of doing food in Canberra, and the feeling that if you can replicate the Eighty-six formula of noise and familiarity, of simplicity in the food and looseness in the set-up, and the general all-round feeling that you're at a party in someone's groovy abode, then you'll do very well indeed (even the PM joined the party last week). It's as though places such as this can't take a step wrong and it's instructive that its success relies equally on food and feeling. You wouldn't return without the excellent menu, great ingredients treated simply, handled gently, and served with modernity but no fuss. But the mood is equally intoxicating. The service you might describe as controversial. You'll be treated like a best friend, maybe insulted, possibly cuddled up to and for some people this is just too much; for others it gives Eighty-six the feeling of speaking from the heart. For us, Eighty-six is right up there - we've put it in third spot on our top 20 list, but we have fingers crossed for a lid to be kept on the service, and have also a gnawing worry that things could spiral out of control.

Lonsdale Street has led the way in Canberra's dining revolution, not only Eighty-six (and the pioneer Italian and Sons) but Lonsdale Street Roasters, and the Sweet Bones vegan cafe, all started by a couple of young people with chutzpah, and in the main no great moolah. Over at New Acton, the same picture - Mocan and Green Grout, all home-spun garden, perch-on-a-crate (figuratively) youthfulness, now A. Baker and the Parlour Wine Room. With both A. Baker and the Parlour there is a way to go. We've listed A. Baker in our top 20, but not without debate. It's there for the food and despite the randomness of the service. It needs attention, but perhaps the Molonglo folk are busy with the Next Big Project, the opening of Hotel Hotel (just happened), and the associated bar and restaurant (which looks to have been put off until next year).

The other big opening is Jamie's Italian in the city, again packed from the get-go and also needing time to settle in the service. And from a position of thinking that Cream, the mod-Oz cafe just a few doors up, might be in trouble with the Jamie opening, I've come to the conclusion it will probably benefit instead, since there's only so long Canberrans are going to queue at Jamie's before giving up and finding some place nearby to eat.

A. Baker in NewActon has made the top 20 list, but not without debate .
A. Baker in NewActon has made the top 20 list, but not without debate . Photo: Rohan Thomson

Cream is part of what could loosely be termed the Belluci's empire, owned by iterations of Socrates Kochinos, Omar Muscat and Michael Nager. The trio and others are variously owners (some have hands in some of the eateries but not all) of the three Belluci's, Cream, Urban Pantry, Public and Me and Mrs Jones. (What do these places have in common? You guessed it, those prime corner locations.) And although they have also pointed to the tough dining climate in Canberra, they're nevertheless in an expansive mode, with Muscat and Nager having just taken over Double Shot in Deakin with the same all-day-cafe formula. Kochinos's daughter, Effie Kochinos, has become one of those youthful new restaurateurs, opening the good-looking Penny University last week just down the road from her dad at Mrs Jones.

Still on openings, Danny Tosolini has finally opened the European in Kingston, and a long list of places is in on the action on the Kingston foreshore (C Dine now joined by those Lonsdale Street success stories, Autolyse, Gusto and Lonsdale Street Roasters). In the city, Loading Zone brought generous Italian mama-style pasta to what our reviewer Catriona Jackson has evocatively termed the "urban piazza" of the laneway in the middle of the Melbourne Building (more dumpster dive than Roman piazza, but the day is young). And one other intriguing project, Ben Willis's new city place to be called Temporada, will open in the new year.

Exhausted? I'm sure they are. But with all this activity, the young faces of Canberra dining have finally brought Melbourne and Sydney casual buzzy eating to the city.

On the plate, we love the return of terrines to menus around town, and the reappearance of that most excellent bistro offering - raw minced beef with raw egg and electric accompaniments, which you'll find on the modern menus of Eighty-six, Mocan and Green Grout and Pulp Kitchen (love it, but wouldn't want to see it extend its scary reach too far; you have to trust your restaurant and its sourcing to eat a dish like this). We're not so fond of the ubiquitous deconstructed dessert. This end of the meal has turned into a splatter of bits that might have once made up an actual dessert but now are sitting lonely as prime numbers united only by a pile of sweet crumb. Ditch the crumb, we say, and let the components find each other again.

And what about you at home? With luck, you're finding as much joy in the local markets as us. We've been back at the Exhibition Park markets quite a bit, drawn by the excellent meat from places like Greenhill, duck and chicken (Thirlmere), the dumplings that make for such an easy kids' meal, the exotic mushrooms (ditto, but for the adults), the Pialligo bacon guys - one of the final pieces in the puzzle of Canberra food production (see our story on Page 27), milk and yoghurt from Tilba on the coast and Country Valley in the Southern Highlands.

A visit to the markets and dinner comes together so easily. Duck becomes rillettes (fancy name but we just cook duck legs gently for hours in duck fat, then shred them as finely as patience allows) with rye bread. Chicken becomes Adam Liaw's teriyaki chicken (seriously fast, wildly popular). Mushrooms in thyme and butter with soft eggs is another dinner, and the week is nearly done. If Saturday morning is too hard for you, the guys who run the Southside markets have started a second market on Saturday afternoon at the University of Canberra. We're being overrun, and it's no bad thing.

In this year's top 20, Aubergine again takes the gong for Restaurant of the Year. After revisiting the top places (and pondering the question again, what makes a great restaurant?) our reviewing team was unanimous. Yes, Italian and Sons comes so close, and is a favourite for all of us, but the purity, vision and excitement of Ben Willis's food just can't be beat. He does complex, even fancy, but he does it without tricks and with rare clarity and understanding.