Aubergine review

Kirsten Lawson
Brown butter ice-cream, almond praline and frozen lemon myrtle milk.
Brown butter ice-cream, almond praline and frozen lemon myrtle milk.  Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

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

In an age of democratic all-day, anything-goes dining, Aubergine has gone the other way, upping the exclusivity factor and cementing itself as a special-occasion night out.

In saying that, understand that this little restaurant at the Griffith shops is anything but old-fashioned. Nor is it stuffy. It simply focuses on being a special place to dine, with a wine list like no other, and food that is intricate without being annoying, up to date and highly seasonal.

The refurbished, moody dining room.
The refurbished, moody dining room. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Aubergine has refurbished since we last visited, and rather than opening itself to the street like so many others have done, it has closed the dining room off more, with long sheer black curtains, dark carpet, black-clad waitstaff, leather placemats on the tables, which are widely spaced for discreet conversation. The lighting, too, is dark. In all, quite an appealing enclosed feel. 

Aubergine has a set menu, $90 for four courses, and you can add cheese for another $14.

It's not extensive, with the starter chosen by the restaurant, then just four entree options, four mains and three desserts. The menu is fast changing, starting with whatever ingredients are best this week.

Duck breast, confit cumquat, roast pumpkin and fermented daikon.
Duck breast, confit cumquat, roast pumpkin and fermented daikon. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The canapes haven't changed greatly since our last visit, though we're not complaining. We love the creamy smoked eel served on a little blini with a citrus chunk on top, and the black pudding inside a chocolate wafer tube. And we're served really good chewy, delicate sourdough, with lovely butter. 

The starter is a beautiful dish of cured bonito, delicate slices hidden under robust lovage leaves, with chunks of celtuce – a Chinese root lettuce that adds such a familiar curry-like flavour and yet is unusual served like this in almost translucent slices. This is the kind of thing that Aubergine does well – source beautiful ingredients and treat them with originality and understanding. A mussel emulsion, a meaty umami sauce, ties the greens and tuna together.

Chicken breast is usually to be avoided on menus, simply for its boredom, but here the meat is delicious. The heritage breed from Sommerlad Poultry is bitey and textural, served with a sweet black-garlic puree, loads of black pepper and shiitake mushrooms, wombok and braised eggplant.

Aubergine boasts an extraordinary wine list.
Aubergine boasts an extraordinary wine list. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The duck breast is served with very uncompromising triangles of confit cumquat, left to shine as they are,  fermented daikon in long thin slices, a super-soft wedge of roast, darkened pumpkin, seeds and flowers. Presentation is beautiful without taking over.

So careful is the service that, goodness, the napkins are laid on your lap not by hand but with the help of implements. This is possibly an affectation too far. But everyone is well briefed. The waitstaff can explain the dishes in detail, the wine guy I believe could give you the history not only of vineyard but also winemaker, the vigneron, and I suspect the vineyard's resident mutt as well, such is his knowledge and preparedness to share.

We learn about the relationship between tannins and protein, which explains the food synergy of wines like those made by local Bryan Martin, whose Seven Months we are drinking – and about which we learn the origin of the name. The details are already hazy but it was something to do with losing track of the wine and just leaving it to do its thing uninterrupted for that period of time.

Aubergine owner and chef Ben Willis.
Aubergine owner and chef Ben Willis.  Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The wine talk, while extensive, is not unwelcome nor overdone, and is justified by the extraordinary list which is divided into New and Old world wines by variety, and has such happy inclusions as a Japanese bubbly, an entire page of orange wines, and a careful list of sakes. 

There's one vegetarian option for each of the courses, and it's the one we plump for as a mains – roast red cabbage, which is served to emphasise its roundness, like a dark turtle curled up on the plate. Valiant effort has been made to fill this with a meat-like luxury, by using loads of butter, adding mouthfeel and fat. The menu also promises fermented mushroom. There's horseradish in the creme on the plate, the taste of vinegar and great little halves of roast deep-red beetroot. It's a study in depth of colour and is surprisingly rich to taste, to the extent that it's a challenge to get through, as a big serve of a single ingredient often is.

Espresso delice with pepper meringue and chocolate sorbet is an uncompromising dessert and not an obvious crowd pleaser. It's a dark offering, even the meringue's sweetness has been dialled down to an extreme, and the flavours are coffee and cocoa. A whisky drinker's dessert, perhaps.

Brown butter ice-cream with almond praline and frozen lemon myrtle milk is presented like an egg, the frozen lemon milk has been dried, puffed and blasted into light pieces that form the egg white (pictured above), with the round of ice-cream sitting in the middle. It's delicious, sticky and nutty, cold like the best candy bar.

Aubergine is fine dining that works, not stuffy in the feel and highly agile in choice of seasonal, local and lesser-known ingredients.

Vibe: A special occasion night out.

http://www.aubergine.com.au/