8 National Circuit Barton, Australian Capital Territory 2600
|Opening hours||Daily 6.30am-10pm|
|Features||Wheelchair access, Licensed, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Seats||120 in the restaurant, 40 in the bar|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 6234 4444|
There seemed a time not so long ago where steakhouses were passe and very hard to come by in Canberra unless you headed into that super-long-stayer in the local scene, the Charcoal Grill in London Circuit. But steak is firmly back on the agenda, with at least two recent openings in the city, Chifley's and Marble and Grain, proudly focused on specialty cuts of beef.
This may have to do with the interest in paleo eating but more likely has its genesis in the drive for simplicity on the plate, the slowly dissolving fear of fat, and the explosion in boutique meat producers. This goes to smallgoods, too, with a growing number of restaurants offering Australian-made cured meats and salamis.
Chifley's is not big on smallgoods, but is very big on steak. The online menu suggests a range of mains encompassing chicken, lamb, pork, duck and the like, but on our Thursday evening visit, none of those makes an appearance. The menu lists two fish mains and the rest is steak – steak, that is, of serious pedigree. Rangers Valley black angus, Pinnacle black angus, Tasmanian Cape Grim grass-fed black angus, and wagyu - Shiro Kin wagyu from Queensland, Tajima wagyu from NSW, David Blackmore wagyu from Victoria, Sher wagyu also from Victoria.
Despite reading much about David Blackmore wagyu over many years, one of Australia's early and most prestigious wagyus, I don't remember having eaten it as an entire steak, so that's first on our order. Plus a Cape Grim steak because it appears to be the only one on the list whose cow was completely grass-fed. The studious and lengthy grain feeding of wagyu might be astonishing for the production of marbled fat and silky texture, but surely it does not top the list of healthy ways to eat meat.
Our waiters tonight are attentive and well-versed in the wagyu – offering also a meat-tasting option. But the idea of a meat tasting feels a little like a wine tasting to me, turning something best enjoyed in very small amounts into an overwhelming gorge fest that doesn't make you feel good and doesn't really improve how you feel about what you're consuming.
Not that ordering an entire steak and having it arrive on its own but for a base of celeriac puree holding it to the plate is much easier to face. For many, though, an entire steak represents food joy and those diners will welcome the lack of fiddle in the presentation at Chifley's. You order steak, you get steak, generous, seared with smoky charred crisscrosses from the grill. A choice of classic steak sauces – cafe de Paris butter, Perigord truffle sauce, horseradish aioli and others – are served in big portions alongside, and you can order sides.
Our sides of caramelised red onion ($8) and baked fennel ($8) are similar in presentation – a row of big, simple vegetables, baked till very soft and sweet, and topped with crumbs. They're enjoyable. Baked fennel and onions need little fancification; they give so much sweet, filling, happiness just in themselves.
As for the steak, cooked medium rare, I'm not sure either offers the tenderness it could. Perhaps you could argue that good steak is supposed to provide some jaw exercise; isn't this supposed to be how our species developed the jaw action needed for speech? Meat is possibly not meant to just dissolve away as if every cut of the animal is an eye fillet, even if wagyu is promoted for its melting texture.
So not super tender, but the grass-fed sirloin (300g, $39) is great looking, dark red meat, and probably our favourite of the two, plenty of delicate beef flavour. The wagyu (300g, $52), with marbling of nine plus from its entire life of "ration" feeding, is very sweet and juicy meat. Which leaves me about run out of words on steak. Carefully raised; studiously sourced; cooked as ordered. What more would you require in a piece of beef?
Chef Mick Chatto has a long history of Canberra restaurants where he has demonstrated a special affinity with seafood - including at Artespresso in Kingston some years ago, and at the seafood-focused Pelagic in the city. On tonight's menu, he's offering kingfish ($35) and Murray cod ($32). Having recently been buttonholed on the sweet excellence of wild-caught Murray cod, it's no contest. This "sustainably farmed" version from Grong Grong is lovely, with enough oiliness to be excellent in the mouth, sweet, fresh and beautifully cooked. A very good piece of fish, served with little roast tomatoes.
Back to the beginning, we are offered Bread Nerds sourdough, probably not the ideal bread for eating just like this, and the very successful Pepe Saya cultured butter.
On the entree list, we began tonight with sardines ($16) and anchovy and sage fritters ($16), both favourites in our own kitchen and brilliant snacks when handled simply. We're a bit obsessive about an anchovy fillet, sandwiched with fresh sage leaves, dredged in egg and flour and pan-fried. Here, though, the batter is substantial and overwhelming in both entrees, masking the fresh flavours, taking over the dish and leaving things a little greasy – although in the case of the sardines the tomato salsa helps. These entrees may need rethinking.
The wine list has a good array of wines by the glass, both local and from Europe, and there is an intriguing list of sherries.
In desserts, we are happy with a mild chocolate pave ($18) although the coffee ice-cream is a little unsubtle on top. A passionfruit souffle ($18) is very delicate and light, and the berry sorbet alongside is great, intense and pure.
Chifley's is the new restaurant in the recently refurbished Kurrajong Hotel in Barton – the trend to upmarket modern restaurants in hotels is another you will have noted. The Kurrajong, famous as Ben Chifley's home, is a place of lovely proportions and has been well restored.
It's the kind of place you might dine if you're looking for privacy, you don't mind spending a bit of dosh, and if you have a burning desire to explore the beef raised by the country's best producers.