Seasonal fare: Grilled salmon salad. Photo: Melissa Adams
It's a balmy summer evening in Kingston and the beautiful people are out for Friday night drinks and a bit of dinner. And Penny University is a beautiful spot for it. This cafe on Kennedy Street is new on the scene, one of the many trendy hangouts that are revitalising the inner south and giving Braddon a run for its money.
Penny University does coffee, breakfast and lunches through the week but stays open late for dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. And it takes bookings, which is a blessing when you're trying to catch up with friends and don't want to wait 30 minutes for the chance of a table at a hot new place.
Yes, it's oh so hipster, with that shabby chic meets diner aesthetic. Out the front there is a lovely big wood-panelled window and low seating that includes child-size tables and milk crates. The drinks come, unfailingly, in your standard Mason jar. There is exposed brickwork and a painted mural of woodland creatures dressed as Kingston residents.
Head chef and part owner Alex Siu. Photo: Melissa Adams
But it's also pretty; a long bar with the chefs busying themselves down one half of the restaurant, intimate tables and chairs all down the other side set with vintage-styled patterned plates and cutlery. Shelves are filled with leafy green plants and baskets of fruit. There's a tiny courtyard out the back full of potted plants and herbs and a silver coffee roasting machine. It's a lot to look at and it's mostly pleasing to the eye.
Let's start with oysters at $3 a pop, served with crisp prosciutto in a playful take on the Kirkpatrick. Zucchini flowers ($18) stuffed with chicken and tarragon are a delicious mix of creamy and crisp. A dish of salt and pepper cuttlefish ($16) is moreish - cuttlefish being the squid's more characterful poor cousin. They tend a little to rubber inside their crunchy, salty shell but are still pleasant. Less successful is the roast pork belly with coriander and Vietnamese mint ($18). The squares of belly are chewy and not quite caramelised enough - they're pretty quickly abandoned. The biggest dish of the entrees is the silky tofu with beans, chilli and mushrooms ($16) where the lovely wobbly texture of the tofu is complemented by the savoury mix of mushrooms and a soft tickle of heat.
Which means it'll be a challenge to get through the grilled salmon salad ($29), a happy summer dish of pink fishy flakes and shredded green mango topped with a shard of crispy salmon skin. It's flecked through with red onion, coriander and mint and seasoned with the tang of lemongrass and sweet chilli. Green mango can sometimes be insipid and in some places tastes suspiciously like green apple. But in this dish the spears of mango are gently tart, with that hint of peach you get close to the mango skin. It's delicious.
Beautiful: Slow-braised beef cheek. Photo: Melissa Adams
But the real star is yet to come. The slow-braised beef cheek ($32) cooked for six hours, and served with a generous whirl of mashed potato is beautiful. It's so tender you can cut it with a thought, or with a green frond from one of the hipster pot plants. The vintage knives are immaterial, the meat yields at the slightest touch and it's so richly beefy that nobody notices whether or not the mashed potato is infused with garlic as advertised. A pile of fresh, nearly raw, bok choy gives the dish an essential crunch and a bit of light against the shade. It might not be seasonally appropriate but when a dish is this good you don't really care (well, not until you fall into a meat coma on a hot night).
On reflection, we shouldn't have ordered the chips. They're good-sized buckets but they cost $9 a serve and despite the wasabi aioli on the side, they're just expensive chips in a cute bucket.
Iced fruit tea ($6) is served on a tray, with a small metal teapot and a jam jar, with a sweetening syrup in the bottom of the jar. It's a fussy presentation but the gleaming ruby tea itself is refreshing without being too sweet. And cocktails of the week are enjoyably summery, filled with fruit and florals, alcohol and clinking ice. They slip right down while groups of friends gossip at the bar or at the tables outside.
Why not another round of drinks from the well-priced, short but not unthoughtful nor uninteresting wine list while you wait for desserts - in this heat the vanilla and pomegranate parfait ($15) is tempting. It's drizzled with sticky pink sauce, too indecisively flavoured to be fully pomegranate, and dotted about with garnet-coloured seeds. But the cool creaminess of the vanilla parfait itself is just right for the evening.
A chocolate mousse ($16) is satisfyingly dark in flavour but thickly textured. The scoop of blood orange sorbet on the side provides sharpness but to my way of thinking it's a touch acid, not the right sharp note to properly contrast with the chocolate. Perhaps we would have been better off with the tapioca pearls with coconut and mango ($16), which looks attractive in bowls on a neighbouring table.
Penny University staff are friendly and attentive in the right quantities, coming through with dishes quickly and making sure everyone at the table has a suitable variety and number of drinks without pressing the issue. They perform that vital and exquisite service - moving our meal along at the right pace, keeping momentum and flow going with well-timed interruptions, fresh drinks and clearing away. Service is a tricky business in Canberra and so often a restaurant with great food is let down by its erratic (though often incredibly well-groomed) waitstaff. That's not a problem here.
And so we emerge into a still warm night, some of us a little dazed from the beef cheeks but flush with good food and gossip. At $90 a head for four with drinks, the white-linen prices are a little at odds with the casual coffee shop vibe, though not terribly out of line for Kingston. But the cooking is seriously good and the quality of the food is delightfully high.
- 02 6162 1500
- Cuisine - Modern Australian
- Features - Licensed, BYO, Vegetarian friendly, Outdoor seating
- Chef(s) - Alex Siu
- Owners - Ellie Raymond, Effie Kochinos, Alex Siu
- Cards accepted - AMEX, EFTPOS, Mastercard, Visa
- Opening Hours - Breakfast seven days from 7am weekdays, 8am weekends; dinner Thursday to Saturday from 6pm; lunch seven days from noon
- Author - Natasha Rudra