Mocan and Green Grout

Kirsten Lawson
Close quarters: Mocan and Green Grout's open kitchen.
Close quarters: Mocan and Green Grout's open kitchen. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

1/19 Marcus Clarke Street Canberra, Australia 2601

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6162 2909
Opening hours Coffee, breakfast and lunch seven days, dinner Tuesday to Friday.
Features BYO, Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Sean McConnell
Seats 20 inside, 20 outside
Payments eftpos, Visa

When you are sitting at the counter at Mocan and Green Grout watching the two chefs at work in a kitchen a good deal smaller than most people have at home, you have this mix of fright and comfort.

You are frightened for them, cooking on display like this, and you're comforted for you, since you know for sure that no-one's wearing a grubby tea towel around their neck or dusting off something that fell on the floor.

Not that we'd suggest that goes on in regular restaurant kitchens; just that you never really know what goes on in regular kitchens, but you know everything that goes on at Mocan and Green Grout - down to the plastic containers where the prepped food waits in portions, to the frying and deep-frying, the plating and adding of picked herbs, people doing dishes, all of it going on at a steady pace, without panic or swearing, since the customers are an arm's length away.

Soft-shell crab with Kewpie mayonnaise, sriracha and garlic chips.
Soft-shell crab with Kewpie mayonnaise, sriracha and garlic chips. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

You're close enough that sometimes the chefs bypass the wait staff and simply hand the plate over.

I love this, fuss free, fiddle free. They are small plates of interesting food, fresh and simply prepared. Take the bowl of brussels sprouts, roasted, still crunchy, with the smoky Japanese flavours of bonito flakes and furikake seasoning ($16).

Despite my preference for well-cooked brussels (not being a fan of that mustardy flavour of the crunchy ones) and despite the fact that it's odd having what is essentially a vegetable side served by itself, I love these straightforward sprouts, there's so little to them - the way homecooked food should be.

The feeling of eating in someone's kitchen is dominant, not only because of the open kitchen and simple technique (not a Thermomix or Pacojet in sight), but because of the food.

The feeling of eating in someone's kitchen is dominant, not only because of the open kitchen and simple technique (not a Thermomix or Pacojet in sight), but because of the food.

There are only seven dishes, two tasters and two desserts. So you can order most of it, which we do. The dishes arrive one at a time with an assumption you're sharing and, again, we like that.

Smoked potato, morcilla, Ortiz anchovy ($4 each) is a fantastic little pile - the blood sausage with anchovy and brioche crumbs adds to a smoky, salty flavour hit, with a bit of heat, everything you want in a few bites of super flavour.

Mouth-blasting: Crookwell steak tartare.
Mouth-blasting: Crookwell steak tartare. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

Soft-shell crab with Kewpie mayonnaise and sriracha ($19) arrives on a paper bag on a board, with a bowl of chilli sauce and mayo.

The crab is fresh and soft, not blitzed by the fryer, without greasiness, just chippy and lovely. There are also garlic ''chips'' here, and a sprig of coriander. Another enjoyable dish, better without the chilli sauce.

Boxgum Grazing pork belly, eggplant, miso and crisp enoki ($22) comes as little squares of delicately cooked pork belly, not the super-dark and caramelised-to-death treatment that this meat often receives, a deep-fried enoki mushroom and a light, aromatic broth with spices that remind you of star anise and cinnamon. But I don't like the weird mushy texture of the eggplant here.

The Crookwell steak tartare ($21), now this is a dish we have in mind for further investigation, appearing as it is on menus around the city. This is raw steak, topped with a raw egg, which makes it brave food where you want to know the kitchen is careful and has sourced the meat well. Evidently, this is local, and it's handled really beautifully.

This is such a mouth-blasting kind of dish that you forget everything in the cacophony of strong tastes. On top of the minced beef and raw egg, there's fine raw onion (normally a hate, here perfect), raw radish, grated horseradish, and parsley, all providing amazing heat, a burst of crunch and flavour, leaving your mouth alive. There are two bottles of crazy hot sauce in front of us as well, one from Mexico and one from Chile, but they don't enhance the dish, rather they sit there offering a sense of the exotic, perhaps that's the point.

We grab both desserts. ''Soft chocolate, mandarin, hazelnut'' is mandarin three ways - juice, mousse and fresh segments, with a light chocolate mousse and a crumb that tastes like popcorn. This dish is OK, but rather bitty, and not well integrated. We like the other dessert better - ''caramelised pear, walnut, honey, mascarpone''. The pear is delicately cooked and complexly spiced. I wish it were warm, but perhaps this is the price of a tiny kitchen and just two hands on deck. It comes with a honeycomb brittle that we are told has been made from honey from bees on the roof; it's beautiful, tasting precisely like fresh honey. And there's a dark biscuit crumb, of hazelnut and cocoa.

That's dinner for two of us and we've eaten more than we needed. The food has come at a regular pace, one dish after the other, some handed by the chefs and some brought by staff happy to explain the details of each. There's no pomp in the wine service. There's no wine, in fact. It's BYO only, and if you arrive without, you're sent up the road to grab a bottle. Your wine is opened and put on the bench in front of you among the clutter of bottles of hot sauce and herb planters and pepper grinders and a bottle of La Barre olive oil, which shows they're sourcing their stuff locally.

Mocan and Green Grout is a small, split-level space with some tiny tables and chairs made out of stools or planks of timber that also adorn the walls in a kind of stripped-back decor that costs not much, and fits the sense of this place as home spun and nature minded, all about wood and planters and vegetable growing where they can.

The chef is Sean McConnell, one of the three McConnell brothers who have made such a name for themselves in Melbourne.

So, low-key and casual it might be, but they know what they are doing and it shows in every plate. One warning: it gets busy and they don't take bookings, so plan your visit strategically.