54 Marcus Clarke Street Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601
|Opening hours||Lunch and dinner Mon-Sat|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Groups, Long lunch, Private dining, Romance-first date, Wheelchair access|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 6247 4042|
This hushed, private place of fine dining goes way back to the days of Fringe Benefits and Alby Sedaitis, when it was the scene of many a long lunch. He sold up some years ago, but James Mussillon has retained the concept - private rooms, well-spaced tables, white table linen and elegance, a place for an intimate or important dinner. It has a sense of place and occasion.
It's been a while since we visited and we arrive to find Mussillon has a new set menu, four courses at $75 a person, with four options in each course. At lunch, three courses for $55 a pop. Mussillon's strength in the kitchen is clear in this menu, which has a freshness to it and is good value, especially once you see how much goes into each dish.
Each of the four dishes carries layers, complexity and detail. Foie gras parfait with roasted rabbit loin, salted walnut, crisp potato wafer and port jus. Doesn't that sound good? The pate is super smooth, precise and creamy. Wedged into the top are these see-through wafers of potato that look like a lot of work - a nice way of having the pate. The rabbit must have been a milk-fed babe because the sliced loin is about the diameter of a nickel and it is so sweet, beautiful. There's a quartet of ever-decreasing-sized dollops of a pea puree and a rich port reduction that gives the dish substance and a flavour boost. The salted walnut, which is caramelised, too, is an odd thing, but gives a welcome crunchy distraction to the softness of the rest. A baby radish, too, playing on the rabbit theme, I guess.
We also have a plump pair of scallops, seared perfectly and served with sweet-tasting cured trout, along with exotics such as hummus, scattered white beans and coriander, finished with a swirl of reduced balsamic. Again, quite detailed, and a balance of sweet, salty and sour, texturally complex, and a great start.
In the next flight, a pair of pan-fried lamb cutlets is all about comfort. Any more Frenched and they'd be doing the can-can, their long, carefully stripped ribs with the plump loin at the end, lovely presentation. Also on this stage are slow-cooked octopus tentacles, a seemingly odd pairing with lamb - OK, surf n turf, but still not something you see every day. It works for me, soft and salty. Binding the dish together a smear of eggplant puree and some crisp radish discs.
Another dish that plays on the sea-meets-land theme is a cube of seriously tender pork belly, with its caramelised, super-crispy skin tilted gallantly to the side, and a sauteed king prawn, cloaked in garlic. Again, it has a saucy smear, so popular these days - here, it's fennel and apple. The belly has so much flavour and substance and, like the lamb, the condiments work well in their supporting role. It's been a real lesson in plate design so far, each dish looking like a team of designers spent the good part of the day putting it together.
The next course is a pair of fish dishes. For me, the dish of the night is a pan-seared john dory fillet, crisp and sweet, with a thin line of saffron mash arranged on one side, topped with Avruga ''caviar'' and micro-herbs. A herbal beurre blanc swirl gives a nice amount of buttery goodness and on top, straddling the fish, is a crisp piece of eggplant, a few lengths of baby leek and a plump tortellini. It tastes super fresh and well balanced, and the size is appropriate, given we have some dessert to get through.
The Courgette wine list has never overwhelmed me with interest or surprise, and you get the feeling some wines have been on the list a long time. The Bethany riesling is fine, but I'm stumped about why you would offer a Barossa riesling from a hot year - there's so many better regions and vintages out there. We also have a 2007 De Forville Barbera from Italy, which smells to me like it just came in from a rodeo, wildly tough tannins, almost undrinkable. Sure, barberas should be slightly untamed, but they should also be generous and full of fruit. This old thing is so out of tune with the delicate food. There's always a good range of cellared wines here, which gets some kudos as it's not easy to cellar well, or know how a wine will age. But I can't help but feel disappointed in the wine. Wine service has also lagged a bit. Even though clearly the wines aren't sending me into raptures, sitting with empty glasses and then a long delay in taking the red order shows a lack of polish.
In dessert, a warm almond and pear cigar with fresh fig, poached rhubarb, and praline and fig ice cream awaits one of us, and cheeses with walnut bread, fruit and crackers the other. The dessert is brilliant, so complex with different textures, temperatures and tastes going on. Mussillon takes this course as seriously as he does the savoury.
The cheese is a quartet of curds, just a little taste of each. I love this time of the meal and ask the waiter, ''So what have we got?'' His answer - a hard cheese, and that's like a brie, and that one's a blue vein - is just that, an answer, but not quite what I'm after. I could have figured that much myself. Which is a shame - they seem to be quite good cheeses.
These hiccups with cheese and wine service are small things, but the food is so good here, the best I've had with Mussillon on the pans, well balanced, complex, modern, complete. So if I came just to eat four good courses and not think about the rest, this is near as good as we get in this genre, but the little service idiosyncrasies have given me pause. Then, as we leave, we miss that final detail when the host asks how it was and maybe even opens the door for you. Here, we pay and walk ourselves out, which flattens the night somewhat.
Bryan Martin is winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla.
Wine list 2/4
Value for money 3/4
Summary: With a menu overhaul, this long-stayer of elegant fine dining is looking better than ever.
11 Something went wrong. 12 Not so great tonight. 13 Fine for a cheap and cheerful, not so for a place that aspires to the top end.14 Good. 15 Really good. 16 Great, when can we move in? 17-20 Brilliant. Stars are a quick reference to key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score out of 20.