Having earned the title of NSW Regional Restaurant of the Year 2013 with Regional Wine List of the Year to boot, Aubergine comes very highly rated. It is also the only restaurant in the ACT to have two hats.
It’s easy to become cynical about the quality of food here in Canberra. So much so that we have a specific point of reference for new eateries we try – no, it’s not just because we’re Melbourne food snobs, it’s because good food is genuinely hard to come by here. Don’t believe me? One of Canberra’s most popular cafes serve up poached eggs with almost solid yolks that look suspiciously like they’ve been pre-boiled in a poach pod – that’s just cheating. And cutting edge is Indian-Italian fusion food. I’m happy to accept that tandoori pizza is alright, but I draw the line at paneer risotto and carbonara murga.
So, when we try new places to eat the question really is – is it good or is it good for Canberra?
When we were lucky enough to get one of just fifty seats to an Gourmet Traveller Wine hosted event at Aubergine, I was excited – but not too excited. Because there’s nothing like average food at dinner to make me bad company. Unfortunately, I’ve been blessed with the gift of bluntness. To say I’m cranky at mediocre food would be an understatement.
Aubergine is a 50 seater restaurant in a corner block at the Griffith shops. Because the restaurant was at capacity for this event, we were seated at a shared table. Service was brisk and efficient as you’d expect at any fine dining restaurant, water glasses were filled and napkins were unfolded across our laps before we’d even noticed.
It was at this time that I thought I’d quickly sneak up to the bar to get a photo while the natural light was still good. My excitement must’ve shown because head chef Ben Willis invited me to take photos of entrees being plated in the kitchen.
Unlike reality tv shows, there is no yelling in Ben’s kitchen. Just an efficient mini-army of chefs that all seem to know exactly what they’re doing.
“Smile, guys,” Ben jokes, as I approach with my camera.
“I didn’t know if we were supposed to look happy or not…” is the reply he gets.
The ocean trout has been slow cooked to a just flaky texture and served with what looks like mini witchetty grubs, but actually turns out to be puffed rice. Ben later explains the several steps it takes to puff the rice, and I tune out and make a mental note to ask him later. I forget because I get distracted by the liquorice custard at dessert.
Having a weakness for pork belly and crab, the second course is the one I’m most excited about. And it doesn’t disappoint. The fat is rendered out from the pork by slow cooking for six hours, then coated in tapioca flour and fried for a crispy texture. The saltiness is an interesting contrast against the delicate spanner crab and the sweetness of watermelon (which has been splashed in pernod.) If you haven’t heard of samphire either, it’s the green stuff – native vegetation that grows near the sea. I must admit I’m not too sold on it’s sea-salty flavour.
The pinot that accompanies the duck is the runaway favourite of the night. With a decent gap between when they started pouring pinot and when the food arrived – we can’t stop drinking it, and fortunately, they keep topping it up. I’m skeptical about duck sausage, as it is one of my most hated interpretations of the ‘modern Australian’ genre and I have gotten into many an argument with Australians who consider it their national cuisine, but I will concede it is the best I have ever eaten. The duck is perhaps a tiny touch over, but the dish as a whole stands together really well. The parsley puree is vibrant and Nick declares that henceforth he would like all his parsley in this form.
The rib eye is amazing – pink throughout and set off perfectly by the smoky potato puree and sweetness of the beetroot. I’m seriously considering getting a smoke gun after this course. It’s so earthy and the lentil vinaigrette is a great alternative to a traditional jus. It’s at this part of the meal that I realised I was at a truly great restaurant – you know when you’re a little sad that you’re more than halfway through an awesome meal, and you wish you could rewind but you’re still excited about the dessert that is to come. Exactly like that.
Ahh, dessert. My favourite part of the meal, and most often the token course even in good restaurants. Not so here – a real dark chocolate ganache and crunchy chocolate shortbread with bright, red strawberries balanced perfectly with the crisp elderflower jelly and liquorice custard. Liquorice custard, what a novel idea. Even as a liquorice hater, I loved that custard. I finished my dessert and crossed my fingers and hoped for a second dessert. No luck though.
It was a good night but more than just the event, it was the satisfaction of knowing that there really is top of the line, exciting, well-executed food to be had in Canberra. It just makes the nation’s capital much more livable.
Ben’s food is really that – exciting. Subtle, and nuanced. Unpretentious and well-executed. Interesting. It may look simple, but it’s not. I’ve been lucky to dine at three two hatters this year, and Aubergine takes the cake – convincingly. Porteno’s is good, and Longrain can be a bit hit and miss, but Aubergine has that feeling of ‘someone’s really thought about this’. Maybe it was because this was a special event, but I’m definitely keen to come back.
Is it good, or good for Canberra? Good. Astoundingly good. Makes me glad to live in Canberra good. Yes, it really is that good. Just go already.
Aubergine does two courses for $55, three courses for $75 and a five course tasting menu for $95
18 Barker Street, Griffith ACT
+61 2 6260 8666
http://www.aubergine.com.au/ (website hasn’t been updated for at least 8 months)
Monday to Saturday from 6pm, closed Sunday