Good Food Guide 2016: Canberra chef's hats revealed

Natasha Rudra
Fruit salad by Sean McConnell of Monster restaurant.
Fruit salad by Sean McConnell of Monster restaurant. Photo: Andrew Meares

They're the ones that everyone wants to win. Canberra's share of the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide chef's hats for 2016 have been unveiled – the restaurants which have been selected as the best by our reviewers after very careful deliberation.

Monster is the new star of the Canberra section of the guide this year. It's now all in the family for Sean McConnell, the youngest of the three innovative McConnell brothers who have changed Australia's dining scene across Melbourne and now the capital. McConnell goes straight into the guide winning one hat for the stylish and new Monster at Hotel Hotel, where he presides over a kitchen with interesting, clever flavours. Older brother Andrew McConnell is the current The Age Good Food Guide chef of the year with restaurants such as Supernormal and Cumulus Inc setting Melbourne aflame. Monster has also won the Regional Wine List of the Year award, an award previously held by another Canberra restaurant – Aubergine. Hotel Hotel director of food and beverage Michael Gray draws plaudits both for his charm and for a wine list that is "long on the nearby Canberra wine-growing region with a showcase of local producers making wines of distinction and innate regional personality". His selection of natural, organic and biodynamic wines also found favour and judges were keen on Gray's "global list of thrilling things to drink". Elsewhere in New Acton, Mocan and Green Grout keeps a spot in the guide but doesn't get a hat.

Owner and manager Po Yang Chia, head chef Shunsuke Ota and owner Josiah Li at newcomer Lilotang.
Owner and manager Po Yang Chia, head chef Shunsuke Ota and owner Josiah Li at newcomer Lilotang. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Aubergine retains two hats, which means Ben Willis' fine diner at Griffith is still one of the country's best restaurants. It remains the only two-hatted restaurant in Canberra. Across town, Willis and business partner Chris Darragh​ keep one hat at their more casual Moore Street eatery, Temporada. Fellow fine dining stalwart James Mussillon​ also keeps his hats – one each at power haunt Courgette in the city and the romantic lakefront eatery, Waters Edge.  Gus Armstrong's eightysix gained a hat for the first time last year and keeps hold of it in 2015. Likewise Serif Kaya at Ottoman continues at the top of his game with another hat again. Keep an eye out for Kaya's upcoming and long-awaited new eatery at Kingston, which could give the old shopping centre a much needed boost. 

The impressive Pialligo Farmhouse has won plenty of praise since it opened – it's got attention to detail, a luxury fitout and, most importantly, a serious love of excellent local produce treated respectfully and well. It goes straight into the Good Food Guide with one hat and a pretty big score – 15.5. Later this month the pavilion section of the restaurant is set to open – a cluster of semi-private outdoor dining pavilions set among the lush formal gardens with direct views on to Parliament House across the greenery. More big things can probably be expected.

But where new restaurants ascend to the chef's hat heights, others come down off the mountain. Italian & Sons, Capitol Bar & Grill, and Malamay all lose their hat this year, though they remain in the guide. Italian & Sons, the Trimboli family's restaurant on Lonsdale Street, has expanded to include a more casual wine bar, Bacaro, at the rear of the building and is described in the guide as a "confident, popular trattoria" that's still pulling crowds. Likewise QT Canberra's glamorous Capitol Bar & Grill, which started with a bang (and one hat) last year but slips just out of hat territory this year. There's still room in the guide for praise for Robert Marchetti's retro menu and "pleasurably OTT" dishes. The fusion Chinese fine diner Malamay loses the hat it won last year but owners Josiah Li and Danny Yip  probably don't have too much cause to complain – they gain the hat right back with their newest venture, the super cool, modern Japanese bar and restaurant Lilotang, which sits next to Malamay and makes its debut in the guide just nine months after opening. And their upmarket Malaysian restaurant Lanterne Rooms, by now surely approaching institution status after eight years, retains one hat for its serious wines and eclectic yet polished village-style Malaysian dishes.  

Chef Sean McConnell of Monster Kitchen and Bar.
Chef Sean McConnell of Monster Kitchen and Bar. Photo: Peter Braig

Akiba and Les Bistronomes are newcomers who have entered the guide without winning hats. Peter and Michael Harrington's neon-pop Akiba, described by reviewers as "Ginza by way of Civic", has won plenty of hearts as well – it was named the second best restaurant in NSW and the ACT by Good Food Guide fans in the Readers Choice Awards earlier this month. Their flagship restaurant Sage, at Gorman House, remains in the guide, though again without a hat. Meanwhile, Les Bistronomes, Clement Chauvin's casual, cheery bistro in Braddon, slips into the guide on the strength of Chauvin's excellent classic French dishes. Mezzalira and A. Baker round out the rest of the Canberra entries.

The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2016 can be purchased in selected bookshops and online at smhshop.com.au/smhgfg2016 for $24.99.

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