Monster Kitchen and Bar review

Kirsten Lawson
Fried tofu, pickled shiitake, bonito, soy, spring onion oil and sesame.
Fried tofu, pickled shiitake, bonito, soy, spring onion oil and sesame. Photo: Rohan Thomson

25 Edinburgh Avenue Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601

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Opening hours Seven days 6.30am-1am: breakfast from 6.30am-noon, bar menu noon-1am, all-day lunch and dinner menu noon-10pm
Features Wheelchair access, Licensed, Accepts bookings, Accommodation, Bar, Business lunch, Events, Late night, Long lunch, Romance-first date
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Sean McConnell
Seats 100 inside, 20 outside, 60 in a private room
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 6287 6287

Without question there is no better dining set up in Canberra. Like the super-cool living space of an arts collective, Monster, which doubles as a hotel lobby, is divided into lounge seating, a collection of tables in an inconvenient parallelogram shape and another room full of vintage furniture and tables.

The vibe is mixed up old and new, cheap and luxe, the lighting is a triumph with some very beautiful crazy chandelier lights in green and pink. I want these for my home. And there is an entirely homey feel despite all the work that's gone in to make this such an excellent space for a night out or a quick bite or a sit and a drink; it's designed for comfort and flexibility. 

The food aims for a similar breezy sophistication. It doesn't tie itself in complicated knots, but it's enormously innovative and tonight is on the pace, with its understanding of vegetables and use of Asian ingredients.

Monster's interior is like the super-cool living space of an arts collective.
Monster's interior is like the super-cool living space of an arts collective. Photo: Rohan Thomson

To wit, three big tofu pieces ($18) in a batter with lovely umami flavours from bonito flakes and pickled shiitake. It's served with a sauce that has a lovely depth of smokey flavour although is a little astringent with vinegar.

Monster borrows from Asia, but feels no obligation to tarry there. Duck liver parfait ($22) is a big slice, light in texture, delicate in taste, serviced with sweet pickled walnuts and slices of quince. That's all there is to this plate, with no extra fuss other than little toasts alongside. It's likeable and admirable in the way it has been put together.

A big slice of soft and pungent wagyu tongue is served in a sandwich ($10 each), between round, thick-cut slices of grill-marked soft white toast. There's a broad, rustic pickle, and again that's about it.

Wagyu tongue sandwich with pickles and mustard.
Wagyu tongue sandwich with pickles and mustard. Photo: Rohan Thomson

A strength, among the many, is the wine list, which aims, like everything else here, to push boundaries. It rewards the lesser known drops, and the staff are kept up to date. 

We drink a local bubbly that we haven't come across before, but suddenly we're seeing it on other menus, too. Mada Wines Petillant Naturel ("pet-nat") 2017 ($15 a glass) is a riesling-based sparkling, made by Hamish Young, formerly of Eden Road, who uses a ceramic egg at Murrumbateman to make the wine. It's a natural wine, so unfiltered and cloudy, and fermented in the bottle. It tastes super fresh, raw, direct and unclean; very spring, and I like it.

I defy you to pronounce this white: 2013 Tbilvino Tsinandali Rkatsiteli Mtsvane Kaketi, from Georgia, and I like the fact that Monster offers wines so madly incomprehensible, as by-the-glass options.

Monster head chef Dan Flatt (left) and New Acton Group head chef Sean McConnell.
Monster head chef Dan Flatt (left) and New Acton Group head chef Sean McConnell. Photo: Rohan Thomson

It's also a place where you can drink happily without alcohol, with drinks like a "mocktail" of turmeric ginger soda ($10).

A pumpkin dish ($19) is surprising in its homeliness. It's just a big wedge, skin on, baked to distraction – just like mum used to do it. Only Monster has added chickpeas and roast pumpkin seeds, which seem mainly there for crunch, as well as sumac, yoghurt, mint and coriander. This feels more like a side dish than a main, but this is one of the features of presentation here. At Monster, you may have gathered, food comes one dish at a time for sharing.

Again, we order a dish that we have ordered on every visit: eggplant with smoked goat's cheese and tuna flakes ($20). This time, it has lost a little of its magic. There's a vinegar insistent in the flavour which I'm not understanding. The vine leaves are, it seems, untouched, not fried crisp, and not pleasant to taste. There's still the kind of smokey Japanese flavour that I love, the richness and umami of bonito, and the creamy goat's cheese to tie the dish together, but it hasn't been the success of previous visits.

The eight-hour beef short rib ($36) also looks rather better than it tastes. The meat comes solidly charcoaled on the bottom, a thick layer that is overkill in my view. I love the look of the braised cabbage, crazy like innards, but the taste is a little vinegary, perhaps the pickled daikon, and overall this feels well conceived but not well produced, and doesn't live up to the promise.

Chestnut cream with pear sorbet, earl grey ice-cream and thyme ($19), has a thick and rich chestnut cream, along with slices of chestnut. I'm convinced chestnut is one of the world's great ingredients and I like the fresh cream, if not so much the slices; chestnut can be enormously temperamental. The sorbet is cold and icy; earl grey is an acquired taste, and there's the unmistakable addition of thyme leaves. A good dessert, if an unusual, almost savoury study in autumn.  

Soft chocolate with mandarin, almond and rosemary ($20), has another challenging ice-cream (rosemary), although we like it. It comes with fresh mandarin segments, big unsubtle hunks of almond, a salty crumb, and a chocolate element that is quite light, with the slight wobbly texture you associate with gelatine, rather than a luxurious fudginess. Overall it feels a little disjointed.

Which is how we feel about this evening at Monster. We're as in love with the set up as ever, and things have been mostly good, with helpful staff, a good pace and great atmosphere. But the food has not been consistent, which has resulted in an overall experience slightly less thrilling than we have come to expect. 

Vibe: Like the super-cool living space of an arts collective.

www.hotel-hotel.com.au/eat-drink/monster