18 Kallaroo Road Pialligo, Australian Capital Territory 2609
|Opening hours||Thu-Sat noon-3pm; Sun noon-4pm; Wed-Thu 6pm-10pm; Fri-Sat 6pm-late|
|Features||Licensed, Wheelchair access, Accepts bookings, Breakfast-brunch, Business lunch, Long lunch, Private dining, Romance-first date, Views|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 6247 6060|
The Pialligo Farmhouse restaurant is a most extraordinary, unexpected thing. Given the location, in Canberra's pretty, country-feel nursery lane, you might expect a rustic, country restaurant. And given the excellent bacon and smoked goods Pialligo has brought to Canberra, filling one of the final gaps in the local food scene – this diner, at least, had chopping blocks and aprons in mind, a sense of country rawness, ruddy-faced and fresh.
In fact, what you find here is enormous sophistication and the sense of a big investment. The space is expansive and quite luxurious, with heated, tiled floors, slate walls which retain some of that heat, open fires and the smell of wood smoke in each room, lovely bare tables and comfortable, good-looking chairs. It feels like ambition and like nothing else in Canberra.
The menu had been a la carte but is now a set three courses ($85). It starts with an amuse bouche and finishes with a crazy array of sweets. The amuse bouche tonight is a loose mousse of smoked salmon, from the smokehouse boys, with apple, if I heard correctly, chives, and a dark, dark green seaweed powder on top. Fresh and simple in its flavours, and alongside a much more muscly shortbread with mustard and anchovy.
There are Jerusalem artichokes with "black figs from the garden", hazelnuts, rosemary and Toma Della Rocca, a super-pungent Italian sheep and goat's cheese, all oozy and stinky, and adding an extra layer of pungency on top of the pervasive chicken fat in which thin slices of Jerusalem artichokes and figs have been fried to luxury chips.
There's also beautifully cooked chunks of the artichoke and half figs, making for an intense and seasonal entree. Seaweed-cured bonito is at the other end of the spectrum, all about freshness and lightness of flavours. A "dashi of its own bones" is poured around the plate, making for a thin, light broth, delicately flavoured. The slices of bonito are similarly delicate, the green tomato slices adding a gentle astringency. Chips of chicken skin make for the only indulge-me element on the plate, in a dish that we appreciate and admire, although not one we fall in love with.
Muscovy duck from the Macedon, Musquee de Provence pumpkin, chestnut, red onion and liquorice (yep, it's that kind of place, not only seasonal, but thoroughly provenanced and ridiculously up to date) is a very well-handled dish. I maintain it takes some talent to handle a duck breast like this, and present it with all the rugged texture of duck meat, retaining the integrity of the fat layer and exploiting the excellence of duck skin – all beautifully tender, crisp, fat and excellent.
But better still is the Macleay Valley rabbit with eggplant, caponata, Ortiz anchovies and capers. The rabbit shows all the delicate handling of other dishes tonight, with a terrine of what tastes like pure rabbit bits, uncomplicated by extra ingredients and unsullied by overcooking. Rabbit flesh alongside is tender, and two slices of tiny rabbit kidney look for all the world like two halves of a mushroom but for the give-away pink centre. The smoky caponata reflects the purity and essential lightness of this lovely dish.
Brussels sprouts in spiced pork fat are a hard-to-resist side dish, and they're beautifully seasonal, but in the event we don't need them, given the amount of food, and the mouthfilling rather overwhelming richness added by the fat. The use of fat that tastes of its meat – chicken and pork on our plates – is clearly something of a thing here.
A coconut and black sesame slice is a play on coconut ice, with the sesame like a sponge on the bottom and the coconut like a marshmallow on top, the taste unusual and far from sweet. In keeping with the Asian theme, there's a green tea ice-cream, green tea crumble, and a light ginger ice-cream with a strong ginger cream too, a great addition.
A dessert of "granny smith apple, fromage blanc, almond, raspberry and red beetroot" is similarly surprising and more delicious. The apple is sliced thin and layered in a sweet, intensely apple-flavoured centrepiece, not sure what you call it, but "gratin" does the trick, with beetroot left to its earthy uncompromising unadorned self in meringues and a granita, with the freshness of fromage blanc ice-cream.
Still, we're not done, with an array of great sweets made by the pastry chef landing on the table, including beautiful clean little warm tonka bean (I think) doughnuts, caramels, nougat, marshmallows, butter almond chocolates and floral lavender macaroons. The wine list is as accomplished as the menu, picking the eyes out of the most interesting local wines and focused much more widely on the most desirable and up to date and interesting from France and other parts of Australia. Proper wine service, too, with explanations of how it's made, good advice, and a view of the label.
Service is excellent, with various bods from the kitchen, including the chef, appearing to explain dishes, and none other than Tony Lo Terzo, the former Sicilian and Melburnian who has brought such character to Canberra's best restaurants including Italian and Sons since moving here 2010, on the floor.
Canberra has been blessed with openings of highly up-to-date eateries over the past 18 months, so much so that you might have thought every base covered. Well, not so, it seems. The Pialligo Farmhouse offers something original to the city, in its comfort, attention to detail, determined respect for seasonality and simple handling of ingredients in an undeniably high-end menu.