Goat enchiladas at the Elk and Pea. Photo: Rohan Thomson
ust as the weeds and wildflowers will find a way through concrete and metal,
Pork Spare Ribs. Photo: Rohan Thomson
even a city as dedicated to malls and chains and uniformity as Canberra can't suppress street-scale creativity forever. Grooviness has found a home and that home is Lonsdale Street. Here, it seems, you don't need big backing and a franchise to make a mark. Just a cool idea and a big serve of bravery.
So it is that Bria Sydney and chef Nick Parkinson of the Parlour Wine Room (destroyed in a fire in 2011, but due to reopen this year) have opened an eatery close to Gusto pizza, Lonsdale Street Roasters No. 2 and the vegan Sweet Bones in that funky little Traders mall - small, youthful businesses all of them.
The Elk and Pea doesn't have the louche sophistication of Parlour, but shows all the signs of an eclectic personal vision. It's a long narrow room, the wall is graced with a row of elk heads, not the stuffed trophy kind, but there they are, looking over you to reinforce the name, if not the South American theme. Pea refers to Sydney's thing for peacocks, a kind of personal symbol. So the banquettes down the wall at Elk and Pea are in peacock blue and halfway down the room is a kind of open birdcage, with a table in the middle that I guess you can book, with a peacock sitting on top. Looks pretty unusual, but hey, it's personal expression, which is cool.
It's busy tonight and has been since it opened - given location, credentials and personnel, it's the kind of eatery that creates a buzz. It's also muggy tonight and the airconditioning isn't doing much to alleviate the heat in the narrow room, with an open door spilling to tables outside, so it feels a little oppressive.
Service is friendly and attentive, and the menu is brief and easily negotiated. It's an all-day eatery, with a list of boosters for breakfast - Berocca, or a breakfast martini, or a bloody Mary with your smashed avocado and poached egg on toast. And for lunch, burgers alongside the tacos and the like that you'll find at dinner.
In the entrees, we order tacos ($7 each, with pork, roast vegetables, or fish for the fillings), and goat enchilada ($16). Goat enchilada is one of those menu items howling to be ordered, every on-trend button pushed - slow-braised goat, tick, corn tortilla, cool, corn puree, yep. It comes as a quite mild dish, a dense filling of shredded goat meat that appears to have been left largely alone (simply the meat), a good corn bread - the flatbreads are all good tonight - sitting on corn puree with goat's feta on top. This dish has potential - like I said, it ticks so many boxes - but it also feels like it needs more work. The goat meat is quite strong and lean, too lean, perhaps, for succulence. The corn puree is mild. The parts are OK but not bursting with flavour and as a whole the dish doesn't sing.
We have a similar reaction to the tacos. We choose the "pork carnita" filling: slow-cooked, shredded pork meat in a soft corn tortilla with chipotle lime aioli, cabbage and salsa. The meat is like a kind of ragu with an unusual citrus flavour, and is dominated by the hot mayo-style chipotle sauce that crisscrosses the top, plus there's raw red cabbage, radish slices, coriander and lime. This sauce has a slow fierce burn and is enjoyable for it, but the heat takes over.
We have more success with the mains. Jerk chicken ($26) is a Jamaican dish of barbecued chicken in spices, thyme and sugar or the like. At Elk, it's creamy, with an almond sauce. It's mild, nicely balanced and good. The chicken is a generous serve, but the drumsticks are rather huge and a bit unappealing for it.
Our favourite dish of the night is pork spare ribs ($27), which comes as succulent slices of fatty pork, dark and sticky with the orangey marinade, sweet but not overly so. This isn't a subtle dish. It's pleasure is in your face.
We've also ordered a side of pilaf ($5) for interest, but it doesn't have a great deal of interest, which is presumably why it's listed as a side. This is yellow, mildly spiced rice, with the less-than-successful addition of salty pumpkin seeds.
The wine list is short but carefully chosen and appealing. This is a strength. There are a couple of bubblies - one from the Yarra and one from France (Coco, $11), six whites, six reds, a rose and a dessert wine, and they're all offered by the glass. It's a list that looks well beyond our shores. In the whites, for example, two are from Australia (Toolangi Emanai chardonnay-viognier, and Xabregas Estate riesling), plus a French sauvignon and one from New Zealand, an Italian bend of obscure grapes from Puglia, and an albarino from Spain. It also looks beyond the common varieties, with the red offerings including a sangiovese, a grenache-mourvedre-shiraz blend (Spinifex, from the Barossa, although the menu says Coonawarra; have a look at the website, by the way, the homepage photo is as thrilling as wine photos get: spinifexwines.com.au), and a tempranillo. The dessert wine is Xanadu cane-cut ($15) and is oddly served in a large champagne flute. We really like the wine list, but sadly, the glasses come, as at so many places, already poured. Bring the bottle, people!
Our two desserts are good. The chilli chocolate mousse ($14) is not a tidy dish, with spoons of mild soft mousse on crumbed pistachios alternated with little piles of ripe mango and mint leaves on top. It's quite light and fluffy and tastes good.
"Peruvian pine" ($14) is two rounds of fresh pineapple, one filled with coconut-flavoured custard, the other with berries. The pineapple has been lightly fried or grilled, and is still fresh and crunchy.
We came to Elk and Pea with high expectations tonight and our experience has only partly lived up to those expectations. If we were treating this as a cool place for a great drink, with some casual food on the side, we would have come away pretty pleased. But it's set up for dinner, and that's how we approached it. We're reviewing pretty early in its life - it only opened in December. The menu is presumably still being adjusted and some of the dishes need refinement in our view. But the concept, the wine and the attitude are all on track.