Our Restaurant of the Year is Aubergine, a place that defies our distaste for fiddly, defies our preference for casual over fine dining, and continues stunning us with the excellence, the sense of adventure and the sheer beauty on the plate. This is partly about Ben Willis’s flexibility with the ingredients he uses – never stuck in a formulaic or unchanging menu, he is always finding something new with which to weave his magic. His approach is modern and open and switched on to what people want. Catriona Jackson’s review is adjoining.
This is the second-year running Aubergine has got the gong. It pipped Ottoman at the post this year, with that long-stayer on the Canberra scene doing a million-dollar flash refurb mid-year and opening again with some fantastic new inspiration on its specials board thanks to a staff exodus to Turkey. We’re looking forward to some of that action on the main menu next year.
Otherwise in our top 20, there are some new places and some gone. Ox Eatery and Malamay are welcome additions, both very good and offering something pretty interesting. In the case of Ox, it’s rotisserie meat, mini burgers and bone marrow on toast in a relaxed booth-style restaurant and bar set-up, with a focus on good booze.
Malamay is the smart Sichuan restaurant of the Chairman group, a place of corporate Asian chic and with a degustation-only menu. Lots of little plates full of technique, fascinating and unique in town, although a place that doesn’t appeal to everyone.
Another intriguing opening this year, although too recent to make the top 20, is Red Chilli Sichuan, on Alinga Street, a crazy, extreme-flavoured, ornate-furnitured place packed with Chinese diners and devoted largely, it feels to innards and extremities.
As an aside, a fusiony Asian eatery, Wild Duck, opened in the concrete wilds of the Kingston foreshore, Brodburger moved in to a permanent spot nearby at the Glassworks, and Grant Kells also opened his new super-casual, fast-paced eatery in the city, Smoque, based on the smoker and the barbecue of the American South.
All of which shows a trend to the casual and a return to meat, not the super-lean cuts, but the fatty secondary cuts, and in many cases (check out the bar snacks around town), fat and the deepfryer. You have to wonder in these times when fat is king whether KFC would have bothered, were its decision made today, to change its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken. No-one’s frightened of deepfried chicken nowadays, you’d have to say (look what Natasha Rudra found them eating in Chicago), so long, of course, as it’s humanely sourced.
You’ll notice in our top 20 restaurants that follow that scores have sometimes moved up or down by half a point or so compared with reviews during the year. This, for the record, is about drawing finer distinctions between these restaurants that we regard as the 20 best. They all scored at least 14.5 (most 15 or higher) during the year. Here, we spread them just a little wider.