65 Northbourne Ave Canberra, ACT 2601
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri noon-11pm; Sat 5pm-midnight|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Late night, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Bar, Events|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 6262 6522|
It wasn't so long ago in Canberra that getting a good drink with a quality nibble was a fantasy. But then along came Benchmark, the wine bar with serious food, and we were away. Now you can barely move without being offered small plates with your tipple of choice.
Not that fully fledged dinner is not the point at Benchmark, in fact a classy drink will often lead you to a proper sit down, but the flexibility is one of the things that makes this place special.
So the challenge for Benchmark is to stay relevant while everyone else scrambles to catch up. And they have done so not with gimmicks, but with aplomb. It is simple really, they just keep producing consistent, high-quality European-style food teamed with dangerously good wine.
The biggest challenge on arrival is how to choose, and thank goodness the staff are ready with advice.
The wine list is a serious document, as is the menu, and both proper serious attention, or you could just leave yourself in the hands of the kitchen and take the degustation.
Settling into comfortable surrounds – glass walls out onto the street and a bistro feel inside – we begin with fresh pork crackling and beetroot-cured trout. The crackling is salty and spicy and a terrific beer snack. The trout is spectacular. Tinged a wonderful deep pink at the edges, the fish has a great resistance to the bite and all the subtle, clean, richness that this dish should have. Both make a lovely start to the meal.
Sparkling rosé (recommended) and sparkling burgundy work very well with the choices.
At this point you can abrogate responsibility and take the nightly wine flight, three wines in smaller serves to compare and contrast, or order from the extensive by-the-glass offerings. We did the latter, and it worked a treat. Duck rillettes are next, two generous scoops of shredded flesh moistened with duck fat, and a generous array of pickles and toasts that display all the contrast and vigour this classic dish should have.
Fremantle sardines are wonderful and clean tasting, teamed perfectly with a little sweetness from onion and currants. Even for fish sceptics, this is a terrific dish.
A main of confit duck leg is well executed with spectacular internal balance. With tender rich meat falling from the bones, it is teamed with potato and prune, which supplies just the right measure of starch and sweetness. This sounds too much but it is not.
A proper cheese plate with three perfectly ripe specimens, fruit paste and a platter of excellent crisp breads, dessert wine and port are probably unnecessary, but send us off into the night replete.
It hardly needs to be said that the new and the now are not always the best, especially when if comes to eating out. But it is lovely to be reminded in such style why classic dishes, executed perfectly, with terrific wine and relaxed, informed service, makes for such a treat.
Benchmark is all class, for dinner for two or more, a really good work function or just a drink if you can contain yourself.