Crispy roast chicken served with parmesan and sage potatoes, slow baked apple and a cider sauce: Head chef Eric Menarol at the Sculpture Garden restaurant at the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
You know that feeling? Anxious. Like a Labor backbencher when an election is called. Well, that's how I feel when asked to go to a restaurant that is themed, or has a view, or is at a gallery or museum. It seems weird, but if you can see Niagara Falls or the Mona Lisa is nearby or there's someone dressed as Postman Pat, it rarely works out for me, too many Thai green curries, salt and pepper squids, and caeser salads.
So when the editorial winds blow my much becalmed sails towards the National Gallery of Australia, I pause for thought, and that's when this nervousness of which I speak creeps in.
I know the place, and the Sculpture Garden Restaurant all looks so familiar on our return, and I'm just hoping the new owners, who set up last year after the previous highwire act plummeted to earth so spectacularly, are up to the task.
Sculpture Garden restaurant at the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
It's an unusual setting, totally open air, looking over so many warriors peering sternly from the misty pools. Even on a hot late-summer's day we find coolness here, but for me, it has never felt quite finished. A walk down the stairs from the carpark puts you into what seems like the kitchen or a still bar. It's like you're coming to work a shift.
The set-up lends itself to everyone having an outlook as the mists drift over the statues and sculptures.
The menu, I am happy to report, is devoid of the standard gallery and tourist-spot fare that made me anxious, so I relax.
Baked lemon tart served with toasted italian meringue, creme fraiche and citrus salad. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
The new owner is the Big Group, a Melbourne caterer, so the question is, can they match what Fiona Wright's Ten and a Half did in quality and derring-do? Turns out, Eric Menard is still in the kitchen.
The menu, presumably matched to the current Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, is heavy on the French theme, and it's a tidy four choices over three courses. The prices seem high for a lunch spot, at $19 for entrees, $32 for mains and $17 for desserts. Not that I shy away from a pricey meal, but this is lunch. I count five people joining me so I'm staring down the barrel at $300-plus.
As so often, it's the entrees that show the chef's daring side, where they break free of the burden of putting up a chicken, fish, beef and vegetarian dish for the mains and can go wild with stuff such as duck terrine, crispy pork belly, and some curing of salmon.
Confit duck terrine with a cointreau and burnt orange dressing, mustard cress and puffed wild rice. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
I contemplate having two entrees or an entree and a dessert, but that would be wimping out on this particular deal, so we settle on entrees and mains each and skip dessert.
We go big on the entrees, so I can report on all four. Warm brioche served with cured salmon, celeriac and apple remoulade and lime. This is a pretty dish and well put together. Thin strips of cured salmon are arranged in a herringbone pattern with a crisp piece of brioche toast, looking a little small to lap up all the fish. The highlight for me, a very French accompaniment to fish, is the shredded celeriac and apple, bound with a fresh-looking mayonnaise. This is a perfect dish and really, with a little more buttery bread, it would be ample for lunch. The lime seems odd, a little out of place, like they ran out of lemons.
Gruyere and caramelised onion tart is a neat lunch dish, like something Elizabeth David would serve you. The combination of sweet reduced onions, nutty cheese and pastry works, comfort food you can settle into. The pear, hazelnut and rocket salad on the side says grab another glass of savagnin and stay a while.
Confit duck terrine with Cointreau and burnt orange dressing, mustard cress and puffed wild rice doesn't need any introduction. A beautifully put together dish, French to its core and almost substantial enough as a stand-alone lunch. The terrine is sort of rillettes-like, shredded double-cooked duck leg, re-assembled like Picasso in his cubist phase. The orange-scented accompaniments set off the dish with an artistic flourish. The inclusion of puffed rice feels odd with the theme, but gives the dish some snap, crackle and pop.
Lastly, a caramelised pork belly with golden raisin puree and a watercress and fennel salad. A dish that you can picture easily enough. It's quite pleasant without having the wow of the other entrees. The pork is a little stringy, which, being the belly, is hard to do. Again the garnish is well thought out and sets the dish off with the sweetness that pork enjoys, and then there's the anisette and pepper of the salad.
The French theme continues in the mains, with pan-fried barramundi a la meuniere with french beans, pommes puree and ''fresh lemon'' (I presume all lemon is fresh, unless it's salted or something). The fillet is well charred on the skin side, and sits in a pool of melted butter, which I guess is the a la meuniere bit. This is a pure French bistro dish. OK, the fish lacks that plump glistening texture I'd expect for the price tag and leans toward mushiness. However, the mash, beans and sauce all hold it together well enough.
Beef bourguignon is also on the menu, but no one goes for this, as it's about 30 degrees outside and just seems too much of a winter dish. It sounds good with all the trimmings, but while it's in theme, it seems an odd addition.
Crispy roast chicken with parmesan and sage potatoes, slow-baked apple and cider sauce sounds good, although again it's a dish you might choose in cooler weather, rather than the blistering Aussie summer. I can't say I'm enthused about this dish when it arrives. The baked chicken breast is certainly crispy, but also quite tough and, to my mind, overcooked. The spuds are certainly encrusted with cheese but are more chewy than crisp, without the feel of just-cooked freshness. I like the reduction sauce.
Lastly the promised vegetarian main, braised artichokes with a pea, lentil and asparagus salad, and saffron-pickled mushrooms. This is quite delicate, and probably my favourite of the mains, a nice tossed salad, set off by the pickled enoki mushrooms.
The desserts are all in theme too, poires belle helene, baked lemon tart, creme brulee. But we skip this course.
The staff are young and dead keen. The wine list is brief and fairly simple, with good wines, including a couple of locals and nice Victorian boutiques. The pink is going off today.
As a lunch venue, I can't help think that a range of dishes more like the entrees, slightly larger, would work better than a formal entree and main structure. But I love the French bistro theme and we're left with the impression that the Sculpture Garden Restaurant is serious about food.
Bryan Martin is a winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, www.bryanmartin.com.au
Wine list 2/4
Value for money 2/4
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.
- 02 6240 6660
- Cuisine - French
- Features - Accepts bookings, Licensed, Outdoor seating, Wheelchair access, Views
- Chef(s) - Eric Menard
- Owners - The Big Group
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, Cash, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Lunch Wednesday to Sunday, from noon
- Seats - 70
- Author - Bryan Martin