1 Wakefield Gardens Ainslie, ACT 2602
|Opening hours||Wed-Sat 6pm to late; Sun 12pm-3pm|
|Features||Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Licensed, Accepts bookings, Degustation|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 6257 4334|
Until now, you didn't find this kind of high-end eating in Canberra. The kind where dishes are precise, lean, obsessed by taste, and take their cue from no-one else, at least no-one in the vicinity.
Pilot has taken over Pulp Kitchen, once firmly Euro bistro in the hands of Christian Hauberg, more recently a subdued version of Eighty-Six in the hands of Gus Armstrong. Now, it's a feat of ambition barely restrained, an elegant, sparkling, youthful, sophisticated diner where you'll get dishes with names as unilluminating and cheffy as "tomatoes"; or "cheese + spinach"; "Barry's bread + smoked fish"; "cos, nettle + yolk".
Clearly, this is a place for the food aware. The set-up is flash. The small space has been reworked, with lovely gauzy curtains giving privacy from the Ainslie footpath and providing a grander entry, and a lowered bench where four chefs are working with loads of intensity right in among the dining-room action.
The menu, as you can see, is not precisely descriptive, not even really vaguely descriptive. Actually it's completely uninformative. But the wait staff are the opposite, so they make up the gap with detailed descriptions of the dishes.
"Tomatoes" was described fully to us, but since I didn't record the details, it was quickly lost to memory other than an impression of tomatoes dealt with loads of different ways, including desiccated.
Cheese and spinach is Pilot's take on palak paneer. Made, though, with stracciatella, an Italian version of fresh cheese. The pureed spinach is a pile of excellent rich flavours, the serve is small, and every mouthful is striking, with heat and what I think is fenugreek leaves. An intense, studied dish, although minimal and at $20 you need to be in food appreciation mode more than hunger mode.
The starters are likewise really good. Barry's bread and smoked fish offers an astonishingly light and creamy smoked fish butter on good bread. Whitebait and egg batter turns out to be a little crisp base with a kind of light herby aioli. I think our waiter referred to a fish and chips aesthetic and it does have that, a bite reminding you of salt and batter and the ocean.
Roasted cabbage, oyster cream is a bowl holding a big chunk of cabbage which has been roasted to keep its shape, a simple good way to eat cabbage. The vinegar makes it rather astringent; the oyster cream is less prominent than it might be.
Pork with "kombucha carrots", apple and fennel is a thick slice of pork, the slice of crackling on top, with the dehydrated carrots that do feel like they've had a fermented tea soaking with a highly savoury, kind of funky result. There's a strong sticky sauce on the plate, tasting unmistakably of manuka honey. Manuka honey and kombucha are both undoubtedly ingredients of the moment, but there's an almost unpleasant strength to the honey that you can't avoid. It's a wild dish, awkward, bold, I'm not sure a complete success.
Service is great at Pilot, immediate, attentive and useful. So go ahead and ask about the wine; you'll get sensible answers. I'm drinking Bryan Martin's pet nat out of the best champagne glass I have encountered - one of those wide, shallow bowls, firmly back in fashion, but these are better than grandma's. The stem is so wide that when the bubbles move up they create a veritable volcano on the surface, a kind of broiling hot pool of champagne. So excellent. The staff describe the Borachio Field Blend as a wild wine with a mouse characteristic. A what? Mouse. A bit of fur at the end. Right, so actual mouse. But serving it on ice counters the fur, they say, and since we're not tasting definitive mouse or fur, we take it the technique works.
The room is small, especially with the new screened-off entrance. The music is upbeat, the feel is fashionable and young. There is a planting wall, which I'm pretty sure is blooming with plastic or fabric, but it's pretty nevertheless, as are the hanging lights and looped cords over the ceiling. And the lovely little stone plates, which keep being taken away and replaced, along with the cutlery, between courses.
Potato ice-cream and brown butter is literally potato ice-cream, made with desiree potatoes and tasting of potato, with brown butter mousse and maybe shiitake mushroom dust. A kind of loony dessert which is nevertheless quite fascinating.
Pineapple sorbet with lime marshmallow is more than fascinating; it's also just lovely and one of the most exciting desserts I can remember. The sorbet is made with burnt pineapple and has that charcoal back taste which in my view it would be better without. Burning and smoking things is the thing to do.
The marshmallow is not delicate but a big pillowy base for the sorbet, not sweet but tasting of lime and brightness. There's olive oil which is so distinctively olive oil, weird and exciting. And tiny delicate tips of lemon grass, delicate and astonishing. But by this stage of the meal I'm primed to be astonished, and to be pleased.
So it's all good in Ainslie. We don't normally score so high on a first visit; a restaurant generally needs to settle in and prove itself first. But Pilot deserves this score for the moment; whether it can stick to this level of precision and obsession, and whether Canberra diners will reward it, time will tell.