Kirsten Lawson
Barbecue lamb ribs with dry spicy paste and baby bell peppers.
Barbecue lamb ribs with dry spicy paste and baby bell peppers. 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

I know none of us wants the inside-out peculiarities of NewActon repeated randomly all over the city, but when you drive into the Realm precinct in Barton the comparison is impossible to avoid. And Barton, unfortunately, comes out much the worse. It's a design mystery – how you can create an area so people-unfriendly, so dark and cavernous, so subservient to concrete and steel?

But lessons learned and all that, and you'd have to think Canberra will now look to NewActon in every new high-rise precinct it conceives and, even though too many great cylinders of newspaper and Bunnings timberyard design features would get tiring, it's a whole lot better than what we're looking at tonight.

Having said that, once you're inside Malamay you are cocooned from the outside world. It's like entering a theme party where the host has gone to inordinate trouble to create a fantasyland. In this case, a formalised world of gothic black that stretches from table to chair, to walls and hanging pole dividers, with stone pillars. The red chopsticks and matching light fittings leave you in no doubt that you're in a stylised Chinese restaurant – snappy, upmarket and full of attitude.

Caramelised ginger cake with maple and walnut ice-cream.
Caramelised ginger cake with maple and walnut ice-cream. Photo: Melissa Adams

Malamay was ambitiously degustation-only but has reverted to a succinct a la carte approach, as do pretty much any Canberra restaurants that start down the degustation route. People don't like myriad little tastes on a procession to the table, it seems, but much prefer to choose a main dish and be left to enjoy it – and also, you'd have to say, to be able to just eat and talk without studious and relentless focus on the food. Not only has Malamay settled into a la carte, but it has some dishes which look to be semi-permanently on the menu now, favourites that work well.

We're very happy to find the rich oxtail stew ($37.50) still here, and would order this every time we see it. It is a slow-cooked dish the four big pieces of oxtail, distinctively spiced with star anise and cardamom in a thick sauce, with port, the oxtail so willing to be pushed apart into its delicious gelatinous parts. This is really good, and the restaurant tells us it is the kind of thing – rich stews and Middle Eastern spices – you'll find in the west of China.

We started with another excellent dish, an entree of baby octopus with "chillied papaya kimchi" ($21.50), with octopus charred and just-right resistant in texture, in a loose sweet chilli sauce with a kind of sour pickle. An entree of slow-cooked eggplant ($19 a piece) is all about texture, the big cylinders of eggplant served too hot but nevertheless treated with great understanding with a sticky sweet sauce and with equally umami flavours of seaweed and sesame, well matched.

Inside Malamay's dark, formal dining room.
Inside Malamay's dark, formal dining room. Photo: Melissa Adams

This is the easy part of our meal; the other three mains are not so approachable. The barbecue lamb ribs ($35.50) are dry in a very good way with spice, and mouth-numbingly hot with Sichuan pepper. The meat is good, simple despite the spice rub, the dryness unusual and enjoyable. The baby roast capsicums are charred and really good. The legacy of this dish, though, is the numbness and heat left in your mouth.

Malamay is also offering a version of the Sichuan chilli hotpot, a pretty sophisticated version of "mouth-watering chicken" ($34.50), where the chicken is in a bowl of sour, vinegar-tasting sauce with a seafood flavour, Asian mint and lemon and I have no idea what else, all covered in dried chillies. The chicken is generous and beautifully cooked; the sauce is oddly astringent, highly distinctive. An intriguing dish rather than one you fall in love with.

We find our other main a bit unpleasant. It's shredded lamb shoulder ($33.50), the meat good in itself, but in a salty, uneasy sauce, quite sour.

Service is very good here, although we've had to go through that seemingly obligatory and slightly annoying part of the evening where you're offered a pre-dinner drink before the menu, and bottled water before tap. But that's now par for the course. At Malamay, all the staff can explain the menu in detail and helpfully. There's an excellent drinks guy who will bring you different sakes to match your food instead of wine, and it is by far a more interesting and exciting way to drink, especially with the punchy flavours of the food. Yes, it's hard to wean yourself from the habit of a glass of wine with dinner, but here, just this once, you really should.

In desserts, we head for one we've had before, because it's chocolate. The little cubes of frozen chocolate parfait ($13.50) are served with a tube of lemon custard, with exploded salty chocolate stuff over the plate, tasting of mint and chilli. A likeable dessert, but we discovered a new favourite which nothing else can measure up to. Malamay's caramelised ginger cake ($13.50) has the darndest texture, all sticky and gluey like an Asian bean-curd dessert, but heavy with ginger and crisped on the outside, served warm, and with a maple and walnut ice-cream, heavy on the maple. We utterly love this dessert; it's the kind of dish, like the oxtail, that stays in your mind a long time after the meal.

Malamay is maturing into its place here in the canyons of Barton. It began as the kind of place you might recommend to people interested in high-end degustation dining of the exploratory and almost intellectual kind. It is now the kind of place you'd recommend to anyone with an adventurous spirit looking for a glamorous night out.