Sean McConnell is a rebel with a cause, and a new Canberra restaurant

Sean McConnell has high expectations for his new restaurant Rebel Rebel.
Sean McConnell has high expectations for his new restaurant Rebel Rebel. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Is Sean McConnell a rebel? "Not really," he says. "Even my mum would say I'm pretty sensible."

But there's a touch of anti-establishment about him, a daring to do his own thing, to push boundaries, to test people, to make us think.

After seven years setting the agenda, and the menus, in the New Acton precinct at Monster Kitchen and Bar and Mocan and Green Grout, McConnell has moved on to his latest challenge, opening the long-awaited Rebel Rebel.

Moonlight Flat oysters with pomello and pink peppercorn.
Moonlight Flat oysters with pomello and pink peppercorn.  Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Situated on the corner of Marcus Clarke and Edinburgh Avenue, what McConnell calls "one of the best corners in Canberra", where the hybrid cafe-grocery store TwentyOne used to be, Rebel Rebel is pitching itself as a casual eatery, bar and bottle shop.

But given McConnell's pedigree are we all expecting a little more than that?

"I think people will be," he says, "but I've got pretty high expectations of the place as well.

Kristin Zeitlhofer, centre, is behind Rebel Rebel's diverse wine list.
Kristin Zeitlhofer, centre, is behind Rebel Rebel's diverse wine list. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

"We're not reinventing the wheel, we just want it to be a fun, welcoming venue."

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days, McConnell hopes that people walk away, at any time of the day, and say "I can't wait to go back there".

McConnell himself can't wait to get back into the kitchen.

Advertisement

He hung up the apron at Monster in August 2018 and has spent the past year or so at home with his young children, Arley, six, Lola, four, and Louis, one.

"It's been a pretty amazing experience," he says.

"Arley was born when we first opened Monster, and then we had two more kids, so I didn't get a lot of time with them. To have nearly 18 months off with them has been pretty special.

Spelt and maple granola, roasted rhubarb, berries, whipped ricotta.
Spelt and maple granola, roasted rhubarb, berries, whipped ricotta. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

"Sure, there were days where I wished I had been at work, it might have been easier, but I think that's parenthood."

Rebel Rebel is the first joint venture for McConnell and his wife Jennie Harders.

They met while working in hospitality in the early 2000s, sharing a love of food and travel. They lived in Vanuatu for six years while Harders worked for AusAid, and agonised where they would live when they returned but eventually settled on Canberra, Harders' home town, as the place to plant their roots.

The restaurant has repurposed wooden beams from Bega Flats for the ceiling and tables.
The restaurant has repurposed wooden beams from Bega Flats for the ceiling and tables.  Photo: Elesa Kurtz

"Jennie and I are pretty thrilled to see it all taking shape," McConnell says.

"It's a concept we've had in the works for a number of years, a culmination of our travels to countries like Turkey, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece, but fused with a considerable respect for local producers."

The menu spans from a simple bacon butty to manchego croquettas with prawn head aioli, and marmalade cake with almond and fennel.

Rebel Rebel's on a light-filled corner of Marcus Clarke Street.
Rebel Rebel's on a light-filled corner of Marcus Clarke Street. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

"If I had to label it, I'd say modern Australian with a bit of a European lean, but interpret that however you like," he says.

"It's very vegetable based, a couple of big protein dishes, but all very generous and simple."

Designed by Sam Rice, formerly of March Studios, where he worked on projects for Baker D. Chirico, Gazi and the award-winning Nishi building, Rebel Rebel's interior has a textural feel.

Polished concrete, leather banquette seating, linen, ceramics from Glenn Tebble via Bendigo Pottery, a stand-out vase from Greybox Designs made from recycled copper.

And timber with a story or two. More than 3.4 tonnes of timber was salvaged from the infamous housing project Bega Flats that were built in 1957 and demolished in 2018.

The cathedral-like ceiling is lined with old joists, the tables too are made from reclaimed timber.

"I'd like to think about what stories they could tell," McConnell says.

Or what stories might be told over the high table in the new bar area. Just inside the front door, there's what McConnell calls a retail space.

One bonus of taking over the licence from TwentyOne was that Rebel Rebel will operate a little bottle shop, selling wines from the menu at discounted prices.

"It's kind of respecting the site's former role," he says.

"TwentyOne was the only place you could grab a bottle of wine in the New Acton precinct and I felt the precinct needed it."

Kristin Zeitlhofer, who worked with McConnell at Monster, is behind Rebel Rebel's diverse wine list. She'll also manage front of house.

There'll be a strong wine focus, concentrating on small producers, both local and international.

Local producers include Sassafras, Mallaluka, Lark Hill, Ravensworth, Mada, Collector and Clonakilla.

As well as wine, there's a good list of non-alcoholic options, featuring Strangelove sodas, and a beer list featuring locals Bentspoke and Capital Brewing.

There wouldn't be too many restaurants serving Melbourne Bitter, but that's just McConnell's way.

Helping McConnell in the kitchen will be Lex Koh and Liam Hennay, who worked with him at Monster. Jasmine Sawa is another from the Monster family - she'll be looking after the pastries and sweet things.

The kitchen is on full display, but that too was always part of the plan.

"There'll be a cohesion and integration between front of house and kitchen operations which I hope people will enjoy," McConnell says.

Does it worry him how the restaurant might deal with whole-day dining, opening at 7am and serving through until 10pm?

"We'll have to see how that goes," he says. "Some places do it seamlessly, and we've put procedures in place for that to happen here.

"But it will be great to see how the place changes throughout the day. The light in this room changes so much during the day. In the morning it's just beautiful and bold. At night, with a little bit of ambient street light and movement, the room dynamics change."

McConnell  says people keep asking him how the new venue will be different to Monster.

"I loved Monster. Monster was an incredible journey for all of us and I was sad to go but it was time to take that next step," he says.

"When it comes to the menu I guess Rebel Rebel will be a little less globe-trotting, we'll focus on one region."

As one of six children, he's the youngest of the famed McConnell brothers - Andrew and Matt run some of the country's most exciting restaurants, boasting several hats between them.

Good Food Awards director Myffy Rigby once described them as "the culinary equivalent of the boy band Hanson, only less coiffed".

McConnell probably aligns himself more to David Bowie, with a nod to the song of the same name, than Hanson.

"That song was released in the early '70s proto punk era introducing an anti-establishment ethos to the music scene that paved the way for punk," he says.

And just like the song of its inspiration, perhaps the food and drink experience at Rebel Rebel is designed to be, in its own way, an anti-establishment, establishment.

Open daily 7am-10pm.

Rebel Rebel, 21-23 Marcus Clarke Street, Canberra, rebelrebeldining.com.au