Cooleman Court, Weston Creek Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2611
|Opening hours||Tuesday to Saturday 9am-9pm, Sunday 9am-2.30pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, BYO, Cheap Eats, Family friendly, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||Mastercard, Visa, Cash, eftpos|
|Phone||02 6288 8461|
Oh Canberra, you're full of small, random restaurant surprises. Just when I'd given up on Manuka as full of Asian and Italian joints, along comes a Himalayan eatery in a back alley. I never go to the Pearce shops for anything - but then there's a little Ethiopian place run by a gentle, smiling man who serves up sour injera, mild goat curry and that ball-busting Sidamo coffee ice-cream.
And now here we are in Cooleman Court at Weston, standing in what might be the capital's only Philippine restaurant. We've walked in on a whim on a fairly busy Friday night but the woman who greets us sets to work resetting a table at the back. It's a modern little place - black wood tables, mushroom-painted walls.
There's a big communal-style table at the front of the room where there's a glass case for cake and muffins and a coffee counter for casual trade. But most eye-catching are the technicolour desserts: a slice of super-bright purple cake with cream and icing and another slice of cake the colour of neon lizard green sail past on plates heading to a couple sitting in the window. We all stare. ''What is that? I want it,'' one of us says. The cakes are sitting in the glass case - the green confection is coconut and pandan cake and the purple is a yam cake.
With dessert sorted, we head to the table. None of us have had Philippine food before so ordering is a thoroughly uninformed affair - everyone picks a dish or two that sounds interesting and there are plenty of those on the menu. Our waitress is young and keen and seems to be part of the Kusina family. In satisfyingly Asian style, there's a bit of lull and then everything hits the table in rapid succession.
If you like dishes to come out in order, you might be disappointed. Embutido ($8.50) turns out to be a plate of pork terrine wrapped in bacon and served with generous dobs of pulpy red capsicum relish. The relish is sweet and mild and beautifully complements the meaty pork.
Sinigang ($14.50) is a tamarind soup (think tom yum, the waitress advises) dotted with long beans and tomato. A couple of oversized bright red prawns sit half out of the broth, their antennae reaching out of the bowl. The soup is sour and savoury, particularly refreshing after the heavier meat dishes, but the prawns taste old and briny.
Everything tastes better with garlic rice ($3.50 a serve) which helps boost the flavour of the main dishes. A plate of chicken adobo (adobong manok, $18.50) is tender, the vinegar and soy sauce-infused chicken pieces perfectly brown and accompanied by quail eggs so full of marinade they look like champignons. Chicken and soy sauce are made for each other but there's a contrasting tang from the vinegar and a slight earthiness that makes this Philippine staple sing.
There are more bright flavours in a whole baby snapper grilled with a mango salsa (inihaw na isda, $22). The fish is succulent and flaking with a hint of smoke and char from the grill and the cubes of mango are alive with lime juice and red onion. This is gorgeous.
But the highlight must be the sizzling sisig ($19), a tumble of thrice-cooked pork, which includes crispy slices of crackling, served up with an egg that's scrambled through the meat as soon as the hotplate lands on the table. This is definitely a sometimes food - it's very, very rich but delightfully tasty with a hint of chilli. A quick squeeze of fresh lime wedges helps cut through the richness but it's an outstanding dish best served in small portions.
The dark horse of this menu is the adobong pusit ($19), baby squid in ink with vinegar, soy sauce and tomato, surprisingly more complex than it sounds. The squid could be a little more tender but it's decently cooked in its puddle of ink and has an unexpected combination of earthiness and tartness, offset by the mild sweetness of the cooked tomato.
Quick, time for dessert. But we're not the only ones with our hearts set on a crazily coloured slice of cake. There's no more yam cake and only one, final slice of coconut and pandan in all its bright green and cream glory. We take it home in a tub to eat at our leisure - it's coconutty, sweet and salty in the best tradition of Asian desserts, and the cream filling is laced with gleaming translucent pieces of what look like palm seed (which are like clear jelly).
Kusina is another of Canberra's domestic treasures. Each dish is distinct and delicious, each filled with bright flavours that play off each other. There's a sure touch in the cooking and a homely feel to the food and restaurant that's reassuring. Do I know anything about Philippine cuisine? No. Do I think Kusina serves delicious food? Yes.
Natasha Rudra is a staff reporter.