Malamay restaurant in Barton, part of the Chairman group.
Malamay restaurant in Barton, part of the Chairman group. Photo: Melissa Adams

Burbury Close Barton, Australian Capital Territory 2600

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Opening hours Tues-Friday lunch noon; Tues-Sat dinner 6pm-late
Features Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Licensed, BYO
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Jeffrey Shim
Seats 100
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 6162 1220

Two things that have not traditionally screamed culinary excitement in our great nation are ‘‘Chinese in the pub’’ and ‘‘hotel restaurant’’. We have all eaten the former, fried rice with everything, neon sweet and sour, and a schooner to wash it down. Most of us have also experienced a soulless hotel restaurant dinner – inflated prices, low standards and a ‘‘please everyone’’ approach really just disappoints everyone.

But as you may have noticed, Chinese in the pub, or more accurately in the hotel in this case, can mean something a quite different in the Australia of 2013.

Malamay is part of the Chairman group – which started with Chairman and Yip in town (edgy, classy Chinese that has now become a Canberra staple) and later opened Lanterne Rooms in the Campbell shops, adding a Nonya flavour to their offerings.

Pork and prawn tortellini.
Pork and prawn tortellini. Photo: Melissa Adams

Malamay is their most recent effort, still ‘‘fusion’’ Chinese, this time with an emphasis on Sichuan flavours and techniques. Sitting on the outer corner of the Burbury Hotel, in the flash new Barton ‘‘hub’’ development that includes the Realm and the refurbished National Press Club, it is a hip and happening spot in a well-dressed kind of way. 

Casual eateries and bars mix it with the more refined, like Malamay – and whole thing exudes a vibe that is not even slightly soulless.

The restaurant itself is carefully decorated in oriental black and red with nicely divided spaces, and a sectioned off private rooms.

Slowcooked apple, leek and beetroot with ginger and chilli.
Slowcooked apple, leek and beetroot with ginger and chilli. Photo: Melissa Adams

Until this point an extensive tasting menu ($92 a person, $55 extra with matched wines) has been the only option at Malamay, but no longer.

An a la carte option has just been introduced (for tables of up to  five only) and many were taking it up the night we visited. A banquet (six courses, $68.50 a head) is also available.

Wine matching is taken seriously here with two staff collaborating on the choices, and a new list for the tasting menu just out.

Crab croquette with smoked portobello.
Crab croquette with smoked portobello. Photo: Melissa Adams

Ranging from local Canberra to New Zealand and French offerings (including a very good red dessert wine),  seven half glasses accompany the meal. A page of tasting notes is popped on the table so you can peruse at your leisure, but staff happily chat about the wines, and ask what diners think with real interest.

The peppery, assertive flavours of Sichuan food can pose a significant challenge for any wine, and the selections all work in harmony with the food. Importantly sommeliers have not taken the lazy option and just chosen sugar-heavy options to blanket the heat.

Our first dish is a well-crisped, creamy crab croquette, the crabby sweetness set off brightly with tremendously smoky wafers of portobello mushroom and a charcoal smear beneath.

Some sweet prawns come next, enlivened with a complex three-chilli sauce and hand-made soba noodles (served cold, as they should be, but perhaps something that should be reconsidered in the depths of the Canberra winter).
A tasting menu should have shape – Ipromise I am not going to waffle on about culinary journeys – and a pleasingly simple dish of slow-cooked apple, leek  and beetroot tangy with ginger and chilli provides refreshing a punctuation point. 

Next comes a simply grilled piece of white fish with mapo tofu, an ‘‘improvement’’ on the original dish we are told.
Mapo tofu is a dish steeped in tradition and exquisite with textural and flavour contrast, the slippery tofu (usually) sidling up to chilly and minced pork. This dish is good, but effectively just pops a good version of mapo atop a piece of fish, which is very nice, but not necessarily an improvement.

A decent dob of wonderfully savoury paste sets off fresh and tender pork and prawn ‘‘tortellini’’, and wagyu beef flank in hot Sichuan broth slides down with ease. The beef is tender and curiously slippery, but the feisty, clear broth is the star of this dish, and worth scooping up  the last drop.

Little barbecue lamb ribs are easy to pick up and chew, with a pleasant stickiness, but a slight dryness in the meat.
Chocolate and chilli charcoal is the only dessert offering at Malamay, and is an interesting idea. Interrupted with a little yoghurt cream, the chunks of mousse are cold and require a sharp tap to break up. The quality of the chocolate and mousse is good, and the texture works well once get used to it. However, after you have swallowed there’s a harsh hit of chilli heat and flavour that makes this a hard dessert to like.

But overall Malamay is a very pleasant place to eat, with enthusiastic, skilled staff, and increased flexibility in eating options, if seven courses is simply a bridge too far. The food is good, sometimes terrific, and the place has an unmistakably classy vibe.

Catriona Jackson is chief executive of peak lobby group Science and Technology Australia and a food writer.