Aubergine retains its No. 1 position among Canberra restaurants in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide released this week. Once again, Aubergine has scored 16 out of 20 and been awarded two hats - the only Canberra restaurant to gain the accolade.
Aubergine is the Griffith restaurant run by Ben Willis, who serves high-end food while never losing sight of the need for imagination, seasonality and excitement on the plate. "Classy, flavour-first food and a cheery lack of pretension make this not just a big night out but a fun night out, too," the Guide comments. Willis was in Sydney for the awards ceremony on Monday night.
The other big winner was Pulp Kitchen in Ainslie, which has languished in the Guide's "short" entries for some years, but finally hits the main lists, straight in at a high score of 15, with a hat.
Another new entry this year is Eightysix, the casual, loud and very mod-cool restaurant opened in Lonsdale Street this year by Gus Armstrong, formerly of Ellacure, and Sean Royle. "High-ceilinged and warehousey with a pounding music selection, banquettes and scrawled on blackboards, it has a style that's easy to like," the Guide says of the newcomer, awarding it 14.5 points.
James Mussillon also has cause to celebrate, with his long-running fine-diner in the city, Courgette, retaining its hat and 15 points, and his other restaurant, Waters Edge, co-owned with chef Clement Chauvin, boosted to 15 points and a hat. Dishes are creative with bold combinations of colour and texture, the review comments of Waters Edge, which is on the lake front in the Parliamentary Triangle.
The recognition for Pulp Kitchen comes after long-time chef and owner Christian Hauberg sold the restaurant last year, and while the new chef Keaton McDonnell has started serving more intricately plated food, it would be fair to say that the Guide's accolade probably has more to do with the preferences of individual reviewers than this switch. It's a relatively unadorned restaurant, bare tables and alleyway loos, with a slight feel of neighbourhood grunge that appeals to many, but not to all.
"The next-gen kitchen is a whiz at upgrading and updating the classics, sending out sophisticated dishes and ridiculously good-value prices," the Guide comments. "There is something a bit scruffy about the place, but that's part of its under-the-radar charm."
Regional editor Barbara Sweeney says Pulp Kitchen is quite different in style to other restaurants in Canberra with hats.
"Some young kids have got hold of a place that's suburban that's been running for a long time and they're doing something there that got our reviewers excited," she says. "They're shaking the pan, they're getting loud, they're saying 'look at us'."
Sweeney also points to the achievement of the long-running Ottoman Cuisine, which she says just doesn't seem to put a foot wrong, and is scored at 15.5.
She says the small movements of half a point up and down reflect not only how a restaurant stands in relation to its previous score, but where it sits in relation to the current competition. "So the excitement of Eightysix and other newcomers to Canberra does mean that everyone gets looked at with a slightly altered perspective," she says.
"The thing about the Guide is that it is the performance on the day. It's like that elite athlete winning
the race. A half mark indicates a very small shift. It could be a very small thing and it points to how much attention to detail has to be paid to all of the aspects of the hospitality experience - the smile of the waiter, the greeting at the door, the flawless presentation of the tables, the complete absence of dust and debris, the mood in the room created by the staff, the expression of the restaurant in its location."
Sweeney characterises Canberra restaurants as very switched on to their market. "They really meet a particular dining need," she says. "It's different to Sydney. It's not a big night out on the harbour showcasing the city to an international visitor, it's a much more intimate, private experience … I think Canberra diners like to have conversations over a table in a smart, comfortable, stylish environment."
The Guide reviews 18 Canberra restaurants, with a further 10 given short entries - among them new Braidwood eatery Paydirt.
Last year, Aubergine won the awards for regional restaurant of the year and wine list of the year. This year, Canberra is treated separately from regional NSW, with no Canberra awards category. Regional restaurant of the year went to Biota in the Southern Highlands, the highly produce-driven restaurant of James Viles, on a score of 16.5.
Sweeney also points to the success of the South Coast, especially Tyler's Pantry, run by Joshua Tyler in Mogo, which scores a whopping 15.5 points, with a hat. Zanzibar in Merimbula also scored 15.5.
"The south coast is on fire," Sweeney says. "The south coast is like the hot pick this year."
Dining scene growing well
With two newly hatted restaurants, one of only four two-hatters outside Sydney and a bunch of interesting eateries (old and new), Canberra, frankly, is killing it.
Certainly, with its own section in this year's Good Food Guide, the national capital has given the Guide's reviewing team plenty to write about for the 2014 edition. And with an average score of at least 14/20, the odds of eating very well are pretty high.
Whether it's the classy, flavour-first food of Aubergine - once again netting two hats for its combination of casual-formal service, excellent wine and great cooking, or the laid-back anything-goes welcome you get at newcomer Eightysix in Braddon, there's a sense of style that's worth talking about. And there's the substance: technique and tastes to match at Artisan, elegance and practised service at Courgette, the rustic modern brasserie sophistication of Pulp Kitchen and the finely tuned menu of Clement Chauvin at Waters Edge - just right for those lake views.
It's been the year of produce and the Canberra district is well served. Whether at Grazing in Gundaroo or Lark Hill in Bungendore, a strong connection to the soil shines on the plate.
No visit to Canberra is complete without a trip to old favourites such as Silo - still one of the best bakeries in the land. And an exuberant evening at Italian and Sons can cure the worst tough-working-week blues.
This winter I was delighted to return to Ottoman Cuisine - a rarer pleasure now that owner-chef Serif Kaya has closed down his Sydney outpost. Modern Middle Eastern and Turkish flavours are enjoying something of a renaissance elsewhere. But Canberra has long been blessed with Ottoman's impressive blend of intricate, delicate presentation and full-throttle flavours, as well as excellent wine service. Be proud!
It's fun to see NewActon blossoming with the great cooking of places such as Mocan and Green Grout. And Braddon coming into its own.
In short, Canberra dining is humming along very nicely indeed. And we will happily come back for second servings.
>> Joanna Savill is editor of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide and director of the Good Food Month festival.