Recently the husband surprised me by organising a weekend away. To my horror, I found myself in Canberra for a weekend that was more educational than it was romantic. But in between the history lesson (you can read what we learnt here) he’d redeemingly also squeezed in a little taster of Canberra’s not-to-be-knocked food scene.
And the restaurant that goes by the name of Aubergine absolutely impresses.
In the middle of suburbia, this restaurant that’s won more awards* than Meryl Streep seems out of place. But turns out our Uber driver didn’t cock up. There in the suburb of Griffith, next to a reserve that’s in desperate need of a water, is one of Canberra’s finest dining experiences.
Aubergine is a well known secret in Canberrian circles. Hence there wasn’t an empty table in sight – not that there is an oversupply of tables to start with in this intimate, understated dining space. (It also has one of the sweetest-smelling, logic-defying bathrooms going around). Booking last minute online, we could only get a table at 6pm.
* Aubergine’s exhaustive list of awards include two chef hats from Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide five years in a row; #1 restaurant in ACT from Australian Gourmet Traveller in 2013, 2014 and 2015; and best wine list in ACT from Australian Wine List of the Year 2013, 2014 and 2015.
A four-course tasting menu
The $90 four-course modern Australian tasting menu, which includes complimentary starters and bread, is an inspired masterpiece by chef and owner Ben Willis, inventively pairing the freshest of locally-sourced in-season produce.
The chef-mandated starters set the bar at a height that Steve Hook would find daunting, with three little couplings that were equally unique, full of flavour and well matched. The smoked potato mash, which was sandwiched between potato crisps and sprinkled with raspberry dust, was the gold medal winner, although the parmesan cracker with parmesan mousse was a close runner-up, even if Jude did compare it to a Cheds biscuit. Then again he also described the final starter, mackerel on a bed of frekkah, as a “punch in the face from the ocean”. John Lethlean can rest assured that his job isn’t in danger.
Next up were appetisers – a salad of local asparagus, quail egg, grilled avocado and toasted buckwheat – which was also a fixed selection from the chef. This patty of avocado and fried quail egg was eye-rolling heaven on a fork.
We then had a choice of four dishes for entree. I chose the super subtle and satisfying kingfish ceviche, with nectarine, green tomato, kaffir lime and crispy fish, and had the option to add freshly-caught sea urchin for an extra couple of dollars. Jude settled on the ultra-meaty seared wagyu sirloin, with smoked eel cream, eggplant jelly and daikon, which was a speckle too meaty for me.
My main (again a choice from four dishes) proved that potato and leek go together like gin and tonic, and even made the pro-meat husband question whether he’d made a food fail with his pork belly. Not that the braised pork belly and its adorning blueberries, roasted fennel and caramelised endive was anything south of amazing, it’s just that the vege pie with its accompanying sweet corn and roast spring onions was so bloody delicious.
Next up we added an optional course of cheese. When in Canberra! Despite the fact that the Delice de Bourgogne cheese was slightly lonely, it was incredibly creamy and delicious, with its accompanying honey, dried figs and crisp bread. Worth the extra $14.
While we didn’t do the course-by-course wine pairing*, which is an extra $50 (standard) or $90 (premium), for dessert we asked the sommelier to pair a dessert wine to both of our choices and he did a mind blowingly-good job. My Punt Road Wines sticky went brilliantly with the white chocolate mousse, complimenting the lemon sorbet, orange, cumquat and yoghurt flavours.
* We went for a bottle of Lark Hill sparkling instead – figured when in Canberra you may as well drink the local water. However, seeing the sommelier at work with the dessert pairing, I kind of regret not putting him to work with the other courses too.
But it was Jude’s dessert of brown butter ice cream, with almond praline and nitrogen-frozen lemon myrtle milk, paired with a French dessert wine, that was an 11/10 and dish of the day. Every mouthful was a walk through the Magic Cave, full of flavour and nutty with texture. The worst part was when it ended.
As the bow is being tied on 2016, I had been pondering very seriously the day before about what was the best of the best of all the amazing food experiences I’ve been exposed to in this year of Trump and Brexit, and Aubergine would have to be right up there.
At a total cost of $300 for two (including a bottle of wine and two dessert wines), yes it’s half a week’s rent but absolute value for money. Aubergine was such a great restaurant experience and we both left confident that we had enough of a belly to audition for a role as Santa (tip: come hungry).
Aubergine | 18 Barker Street, Griffith, Australian Capital Territory
Phone: (02) 6260 8666