National Arboretum, Forest Drive Weston Creek, ACT 2611
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri 12–2pm ; Sat-Sun 8–11am, 12–2pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Views, Wheelchair access, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Licensed|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 6130 0170|
Say we're playing a game of word association: what would be the first thing to pop into your head if I were to say Canberra? For most people, it would be politics, and given what's been happening lately, you'd have to say we do get linked with our hard-working politicians more than most of us are comfortable with. I haven't seen a politician for ages, but I have seen a lot of trees, and this is what we should be known for, a city of trees.
Sitting at the National Arboretum, you can be forgiven for thinking about trees, even if you're not sitting in a jungle - it's the potential in the 100 different forests planted here, the site of the old Stromlo pine forest.
This is a place I knew quite well growing up as we used to spend most Saturday nights here, sideways in a Ford Falcon XY station wagon. At this stage, the arboretum looks clear-felled and replanted, so you have to use your imagination to see what's coming, but it looks certain to be a stunning asset for Canberra in the future. As we drive up the road, you'd be proud of me for resisting the temptation to hit the gas to see whether I can drift the rear end a bit.
At the top of the hill, you come to the visitors' centre, discovery garden and bonsai collection (I don't get bonsai: let them grow, I say), as well as Sprout cafe and Conservatory restaurant. The set-up in this large space is a little strange, with long queues at the cafe and a very open feel, except for a little fenced-off enclosure where only the restaurant diners can sit.
It was pretty hard to get a booking at the Conservatory, not that it's full, just that the phone didn't seem to be staffed. When I finally got on to a person, I was told the reason no one had returned my call was that there were more than 50 messages to respond to. He told me I could come at 12.30pm, but not before.
We turned up at midday anyway - we had limited time - and hung around for our booking time, looking at the little trees and wondering why we couldn't have booked for midday, given that there were plenty of spare tables. I put it down to early days and sat with a smile.
From our little enclosure, we could see so much potential, not only outside the window, but also within. Janet Jeffs' menu is very large and wide-ranging, incorporating her eat-local focus and promoting produce from a 100-mile radius with a mantra of organic, biodynamic, heirloom, seasonal, sustainable.
There's not much evidence in the menu descriptions of the biodynamics, but then again, there never really is. Much like the presence of a god, knowing he is there is enough. Some dishes, but not many, do name the source.
The menu opens with Wallaga Lake oysters and a sushi box from a master sushi maker, then five choices of cold salad-type plates available small or to share. There's also four different pasta dishes, hot seafood plates, and dishes from the fire grill, plus a list of specials.
For some reason, I'm drawn to kangaroo. It's like the ultimate local dish (well, not sure this one is, but there are plenty around, so it's definitely sustainable) and is paired with indigenous ingredients - Davidson's plums and quandongs. Both give the roo a tantalising sweet and sour see-saw. This is a pleasant dish that's as Aussie as, and there's something right about eating it here. The small plate for $29 is ample, but you could opt for a larger version for $39 and share the love.
From the specials we have the ''Canberra laksa" ($25). It's counter-intuitive to have a Nyonya noodle dish full of seafood in the middle of Canberra and think that it's remotely local. I guess some of the seafood could come from the south coast but we're not privy to its provenance. That aside, this is a great laksa, with the depth of flavour and balance that you see in a good katong laksa in Singapore. Creamy without being stodgy, it's warmingly spicy, complex and very intense. I really didn't expect to have the best laksa I've had in Canberra here among so many saplings, but there you go, never close your mind.
We go easy on the wine list - it's lunch, and we rally drivers have a zero-alcohol tolerance, but if you want a drink, you'll find a good list of local wines, with plenty by the glass.
Boxgum grazing beef ragu with hand-cut pappardelle ($25) is a dish that sells itself. I Google boxgum grazing beef and find it fits in with the ideals of local food, being from Young, 100 per cent grass fed and holistically managed, so I read into this that happy cow equals good nosh. The excellent ragu is rich and sustaining - you can almost taste the environment in which it was grown.
The only disappointment here, and it's a big one, is that our hand-cut pappardelle turns out to be like linguini, as in thin noodles. The point of cooking a ragu is to serve it with thick wide flat pasta with the ability to get the sauce to cling to it. This disappointing pasta lacks any chance of this.
You can have a range of good cheese here, including one of my favourites, Pyengana cheddar from north-east Tasmania. But we head to dessert after too long a wait - a baked bramley apple with dulce de leche ice-cream; and cinnamon and hazelnut meringue with rosewater figs (both $15). I love the ice-cream, it's like sucking on a frozen tube of caramelised condensed milk - rich and delicious. The apple is well cooked, shrivelled and concentrated. A nice combination; like a deconstructed apple tart.
For me, the meringue is no good at all. It's a great big blob of hard-skinned meringue (but I don't get baked egg whites at the best of times). Inside, the hazelnutty cream is fine, but on top is this weird Iranian fairy floss. The dish seems to be an attempted fusion of Middle-Eastern flavours and good old Aussie pavlova, but it needs some refinement - less meringue and floss, which make the dish very sweet and overwhelm the delicate figs.
I like much about the menu and applaud the sustainable, eat-local approach, but it's still early days and as with the trees, there is some growing to do.
Bryan Martin is winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, www.bryanmartin.com.au