Tilley's Devine Cafe review

Goat curry with grilled roti bread, almond rice pilaf and lime pickle.
Goat curry with grilled roti bread, almond rice pilaf and lime pickle.  Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

60 Brigalow St O'Connor, ACT 2602

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Opening hours Mon-Sat 7.30am-late; Sun 8am-late.
Features Vegetarian friendly, Cheap Eats, Family friendly, Private dining, Breakfast-brunch, Licensed, Wheelchair access
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Melissa Hanns
Phone 02 6247 7753

Kirsten Lawson and I have had many a heated discussion over the years about all sorts of things, from parenting teenage children, to the seemingly endless run of NIMBY stories in our news pages. When it came to this review we had another one. Sometimes the stars don't align and we get a week in between reviewers and no one can fit one in – yes, arranging to go out for dinner can be problematic when you've actually got a real job and responsibilities to deal with. Such a chore.

And this was one of those weeks. So I stepped up. She offered up a couple of establishments I could visit. But I wanted to go somewhere where I was familiar with the venue, familiar with the food, so I could fake some level of expertise.

I gave her two options and this is where we got a little cross at each other. Apparently we can't review places where we have to order food at the bar. Some of the best places I eat involve a number on a stick, or a buzzer on the table – is there anything as thrilling as that "bringggg" when your meal is ready? I think not. The anticipation gets me every time.

Grab a booth and listen to some music at Tilley's.
Grab a booth and listen to some music at Tilley's. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

So I'm at Tilley's. Again. Up front I'm a repeat customer. For catch up with friends and a bottle of wine. For a sneaky ale in the afternoon sun, mid summer when the hedges that line Wattle Street filter out much of the heat. For jazz on Saturday nights. There's always an excuse to head to Tilley's.

But tonight we're here to focus on the food. I've never ordered a few courses together here. If we're here for dinner, it's usually just a main, maybe a slice of cake from the display cabinet at the front counter with a coffee, sometimes just a bowl of sweet potato chips ($16) to share with the kids as an after school treat.

The post-noon menu is an all-day dining one and it doesn't change much. There are a few options to share, four variations on a burger, and seven mains, from a roasted pumpkin, sorrel and kale power bowl ($19) to sticky pork belly ($28).

Salmon and black pepper pâté served with caperberries and sourdough.
Salmon and black pepper pâté served with caperberries and sourdough.  Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

There's also a range of specials on the blackboard, and this does change regularly, depending on what's available and who is working it seems. There's a chef from Kashmir in the kitchen sometimes, I learn, so when the curry is on, you can't go wrong.

So that's what I order, a goat curry, slow cooked in a mild sauce with roti and lime pickle with a studded almond rice pilaf ($26). It's tender and creamy, the meat falls off the bone easily. My only criticism is that I would have liked more meat in the curry, but there's plenty of sauce to soak up with the roti which is crispy but soft at the same time.

We also order prawns marinated in garlic and wrapped in crispy pastry ($16) and the salmon and cracked pepper pâté, served with caperberries and sourdough ($17), and an oven-baked barramundi fillet served with a whitebean, leek and tomato cassoulet, salsa verde and black garlic aioli.

Barramundi with whitebean and fennel cassoulet, salsa verde, black garlic and tomatoes.
Barramundi with whitebean and fennel cassoulet, salsa verde, black garlic and tomatoes.  Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Given we're regulars we should have known better to order two courses at once, all four meals arrive at the same time, and the always friendly, but sometimes a little green, waiters seem confused by our confusion.

So we start with the prawns, little cylindrical cones of delight that they always are. Can't have that pastry going soft. The prawns themselves are meaty and full of flavour and it's a generous serve with six on the plate.

The barramundi is the hit of the night. My far more knowledgeable dining companion is worried there might be too much going on with the dish, given the salsa verde and the aioli and the cassoulet but she is pleasantly surprised. A good portion of crispy skin fish is perfectly cooked and each component works well together, with the different textures adding to the overall sensation.

Tilley's chef Melissa Hanns and owner Paulie Higgisson.
Tilley's chef Melissa Hanns and owner Paulie Higgisson.  Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The pâté we save 'til last and it's a nice way to finish. It has a creamy mousse like texture, more than enough for two people, and the salmon is not overpowering, offset by the sharp caperberries and generous serves of bread.

We could pick at it all night, which is probably the proper thing to do at Tilley's. Find something to share, drink some wine, listen to some music, hideaway in one of the trademark booths and forget all those responsibilities mentioned before.

The wine list here is great. There's a couple of local wines, Nick O'Leary and Collector Wines, a good selection of Australian varieties and a bubbles list with eight offerings, from moscato to Moet.

Prawn twists - diced prawn pieces wrapped in pastry.
Prawn twists - diced prawn pieces wrapped in pastry.  Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

There's no doubting Paulie Higgisson and the Tilley's team are doing something right. The place is packed every evening, from couples, to families, large work groups, solo diners tucked away into those tiny corner seats.

When I call Higgisson to arrange the photographs for the review she tells me that in the 35 years she's been running the iconic cafe in Lyneham the food has only been reviewed once. I feel like perhaps I've disappointed her, that it was me reviewing it this time, and not someone who actually knew what they were talking about.

But as I mentioned to Kirsten way back at the beginning of all this, in the weeks I have to fill the reviewers' shoes I want to share some of the best food experiences I've had. I don't need fancy table settings or a five star menu, a meal out is about more than that. Even if it involves ordering at the bar.

http://tilleys.com.au/