Smoked eel parfait with beetroot and horseradish cream.
Smoked eel parfait with beetroot and horseradish cream. Photo: Richard Briggs

18 Barker St Griffith, ACT 2603

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Opening hours Mon-Sat 6pm-late
Features Accepts bookings, Degustation, Events, Groups, Licensed, Wheelchair access
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Ben Willis
Seats 55
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 6260 8666

Canberra Times Top 20 restaurants for 2013: No.1

Ben Willis took up the reins at this fine diner late in 2008 and has gone from strength to strength ever since, his restaurant imbued with an enthusiastic competence that is hard to resist.

The small dining room is simple and elegant - bare tables, comfortable chairs - leaving the focus on the food. It's a set menu - four courses or five from a concise list of 13 dishes in total. Each is distinctive and complex.

And the winner is ... Aubergine owner and Chef Ben Willis.
And the winner is ... Aubergine owner and Chef Ben Willis. Photo: Jay Cronan

A highlight is a slow-cooked short rib with a crazy-good gel-like fat deposit, the Cape Grimm beef so carefully nurtured from its raw state to this soft, purely flavoured piece of beefiness, garnished with braised onions, a charred leek paste and inky purple beets.

A shining dish of tender lamb loin comes with magnificent plump sweetbreads, the richness beautifully offset with black garlic and salt-baked celeriac.

Murray cod, smoked mussels with garlic custard and green mango captures Willis' ability to get fish perfect; the skin so crispy and glassy, with all the smoky, salty, pungent and tart accompaniments backing up like a sensory chorus.

In desserts we're impressed by an exploded take on an old favourite. Wafer thin, crispy fennel-scented meringue with a luxurious pepper-spiked custard, fresh mulberries and mulberry sorbet. It's like your mouth has nowhere to run, a wild party of taste and texture.

There's a restlessness to Willis' approach. He's constantly creating new dishes, and pushing his menu with complex combinations of fleeting ingredients, chosen for their beauty and intensity. There is excitement in every bite, and the key is the wonderful quality of the ingredients and the skill in balancing them, with no clutter of flavours and no cheap tricks.

The list has loads of depth from local, national and international producers, known and not, along with a collection from the weird and wonderful world of yellow and orange ''natural'' wines for those who want to drink like a Phoenician. Service is enthusiastic and professional.

Staying at the top of your game is hard work, and Ben Willis and team are to be congratulated on continuing to offer the best fine-dining experience in Canberra again this year.