Kirsten Lawson
Roast umami vegetables with orange miso in an orange pot.
Roast umami vegetables with orange miso in an orange pot. Photo: Rohan Thomson

1 Burbury Cl Barton, ACT 2600

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Opening hours Tue - Fri 12 Noon – 2:30 PM 5:30 – 10:30 PM, Sat 5:30 – 10:30 PM
Features Wheelchair access, Licensed, BYO, Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Groups, Vegetarian friendly, Outdoor seating
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Shunsuke Ota
Seats 100
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 6273 1424

The latest offering from Josiah Li and team, Lilotang, is gloriously approachable on top of all that slick Asian cool you'll recognise from Lanterne Rooms, Malamay and the original Chairman and Yip.

It's the easy street frontage and casual feel of Lilotang that differentiate it from the others, with an unrefined concrete floor, loads of natural light, bare tables and a general sense of relaxed dining. Tables are separated into nooks by light wooden hangers. Ropes line the ceiling, its hardware open to the room.

The food shares this sense of easy appeal, but is far from thrown together. The originality at Lilotang is highly welcome and keeps things interesting and fun on the plate.

Movable partitions create semi private dining rooms at Lilotang.
Movable partitions create semi private dining rooms at Lilotang. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Nagoya style quail karaage with sweet sancho soy ($18 for four pieces) comes as excellent little legs of fried quail with a crispy, substantial and entirely ungreasy covering, beautifully chewy and sweet.

Roast umami vegetables with orange miso ($11.50) is an odd presentation, with a hollowed orange forming the pot for this unusual little medley of small-diced vegetables. An interesting little taste but the sum of this dish doesn't feel like it justifies the work that went into it.

Turnip is also surprising. It's four little segments of turnip, cut like apple slices and charred. They're sweet, bitter and salty all at once, and I like the strange spare aestheticism of these few bites, although at $8.50 it feels like a pricey few slices.

Pork belly skewers with yuzu kosho miso sauce.
Pork belly skewers with yuzu kosho miso sauce. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Pork belly ($9.50) is at the other extreme, designed to please. The pork belly has been skewered on little sticks and covered in a hot sauce, succulent and easy to like. Chicken meatballs ($13.50) are quite bland affairs, quite large meatballs tasting of not a great deal and serve with a soft egg which creates a lip-smacking sauce. This feels like a riff on chicken and egg soup, but not a big success in my view.

Pork spare ribs ($30.50) with black pepper, balsamic and soy are chewy and charred, with tang and sourness in the dark sauce. Duck breast sukiyaki ($30.50) is also in an intensely sweet and sharp sauce, spiced, with shiitake and other funky mushrooms. Also in this bowl is a round white tempura egg, which adds to the sticky mushroom effect of this dish when broken open. The duck is beautifully cooked and sliced.

Cabbage ($12.50) is a favourite of the dishes. It's served as thick wedges of chargrilled cabbage, covered with fine-cut well-sauteed oily garlic and anchovies. This feels simple and homely, right for the setting. Octopus ($14.50), listed like the cabbage as a salad, is another dish that brings heat and sweetness to the table. The octopus is with rocket with a miso dressing and the unusual addition of pine nuts and semi-dried tomatoes.

The plate of the night for us is "Martina's black cod" ($30.50), thick fillets of fish with a surprising rich meaty texture after being marinated overnight in saikyo miso before being baked. This is fish made delicious and exciting. Desserts take us back to the uncompromising stark purity of that turnip: a smooth tea pudding that tastes of black tea, with sweet potato; and a tofu dessert with sweet syrup and green-tea ice-cream.

The sake list is another of the joys of an evening at Lilotang and so much more exciting than wine. The list is helpfully in five categories – which from memory had three levels of junmai sake, progressively more polished, a section of unfiltered sakes and fortified sakes, plus a shochu list. All of which provides some structure to your sake tasting. We love each of the sakes tonight, including the fortified version infused with unripe sour plums, a drink that reminds me of a spirit from the past, perhaps it was melon vodka.

Service is good, in the hands of a suite of youthful, casually dressed staff. Josiah Li and his team have shown an unwavering ability to infuse each of their restaurants with a unique character and a sense of cool quirky style. Far from repeating a successful formula, each place is differently themed on its own Asian cuisine and look. Like each before it, Lilotang takes off in its own direction, but this time the move is more casual, looser and less structured. This is entirely right for where Canberrans are at with their dining, and while Malamay might have brought people to this rather concrete-dominated precinct around the Realm Hotel in Barton for a special night out, Lilotang is bound to bring a new walk-in crowd, and so well-pitched and enjoyable is this place that if you go once, you will return.