To the brink and back: Pulp Kitchen, Canberra. Photo: Jay Cronan
It's cold in Canberra – much colder than Sydney. It's the elevation, apparently. It makes you want to huddle inside with a glass of red and something slow-cooked with potatoes. And yet everyone under 30 appears to be out on the street.
Most of them are in Lonsdale Street, Braddon, which is suddenly looking very Surry Hills. The two Lonsdale Street Roasters cafes are chockers, with a caffeinated crowd spilling out clutching muffins and double ristrettos. Bright young restaurateur Bria Sydney has been busy after her Parlour Wine Room was gutted by fire last year, opening The Elk & Pea on (where else?) Lonsdale Street, a vibey inside-outside brekkie-to-late cafe-diner-bistro that spills onto table-strewn terraces. Next door, there's more outdoor dining at new bakery Autolyse, which does a wonderfully dense sourdough, and up the street, Gusto does thin-crust pizza by night.
As well, Canberra has discovered laneway chic with Loading Zone, a downright charming hole in the wall opened by Joseph Cataldo and James Duffell, which deals in piadina, pasta and piccolo. The seating is, as you may have guessed, outside. Did I mention it's freezing in Canberra? Yet all the tables are taken, with more people hanging around waiting. I just hope there's coffee running in their veins, or minestrone, at least.
Go-to dish: Roasted pork loin, braised shoulder, trotter terrine and cauliflower puree. Photo: Jay Cronan
Not being a huge fan of low temperatures, unless they are applied via an oven to pork belly over several hours, this lunchtime I'm looking for a table somewhere inside. It's time to try Pulp Kitchen, a neighbourly European bistro in hop-skip-and-jump-away Ainslie.
Pulp is a restaurant that has been to the brink and back, with owner-chef Christian Hauberg having to sell up in mid-2012. Restaurant manager Daniel Giordani liked working there so much he bought it, together with business partner Nathan Brown.
Clearly, they are more into evolution than revolution, because Pulp Kitchen still has large plate-glass windows, simple wooden bistro chairs and unclad tables, walls of blackboard specials and an open kitchen. The major difference is head chef Keaton McDonnell, who came on board last September after a year with the Michelin-starred Tom Aikens restaurant in London. Aikens is a famously dramatic chef (I recall a picket fence made of baby carrots at one point), which might explain the flashy bright green slash of dill emulsion that skirts the inside of a bowl of bouillabaisse ($19/$32). It's an enjoyable gathering of lightly cooked mussels, prawns, clams and scallop enlivened by throaty, murky, bisque-y juices, nevertheless.
There's even more technicolour in a beetroot tarte tatin, a smart tile of pastry layered with beetroot that takes on furls of white and golden beetroot, pickled beetroot puree and dobs of creamy goat's curd ($16/$25). Lovely stuff, as bright and earthy as it is pretty.
The menu offers most dishes in small and regular servings, which makes dining here fiendishly good value. It's a crazy move, because as much detail goes into a small as a large, and we diners are the clear winners.
Take a very porky pork three ways, which comes as a round of tender roasted loin, a crisp-skinned "sausage roll" of slow-cooked shoulder and deep-fried brick of trotter terrine, all artfully arranged among a tumble of pickled shallot, baby carrots, halved pea pods, and dollops of chestnut and cauliflower purees. My "small", which isn't, is $19. The regular, at $32, must be huge.
McDonnell is clearly a chef who knows what goes with what, with an intuitive eye for what's both compatible and fashionable. So golden John Dory fillets are harmoniously matched with a tangle of pickled heirloom carrot shavings, carrot puree and perfectly cooked white beans ($19/$32). Desserts are of the same harmonious and seasonal bent, including a mandarin-syrup cake abstractly presented with pearls of tapioca, shards of burnt mandarin meringue and a dusting of honeycomb crumbs.
There's a blackboard wall of local wines such as a 2012 fruity, supple Lark Hill Dark Horse rosé ($9 a glass/$35 a bottle) supplementing a flexible and food-friendly list. Service is personable, laid-back and fuss-free, and the kitchen has a calm, professional air.
In contrast, there's something scruffy about the decor, and the unspectacular loos are outside, but those things are fixable. They've got everything else pretty much right, including a broad outside terrace for sunnier times – or for weather-resistant Canberrans.
Best bit Food with attitude in a restaurant without any.
Worst bit The toilets are outside and a bit scruffy.
Go-to dish Roasted pork loin, braised shoulder, trotter terrine, cauliflower puree, $19/$32.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.
- 02 6257 4334
- Cuisine - Contemporary
- Prices - About $95 for two, plus drinks.
- Features - Licensed, BYO, Outdoor seating
- Chef(s) - Keaton McDonnell
- Owners - Nathan Brown, Daniel Giordani
- Opening Hours - Lunch Wed to Fri, noon-2pm; dinner Tue to Sat, 6pm-late; brunch Sat and Sun, 9am-2.30pm.
- Author - Terry Durack