A sense of of occasion

All about the grand and slightly clubby atmosphere of Old Parliament House, a special occasion restaurant with great service

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We're eating in what was, we're told, the prime minister's private dining room, which possibly explains why the feel is super-private, minimal windows, lots of wood panelling, the sense that you could discuss matters of state or dillydally with your press secretary (not that you would or anyone did) here in great privacy.

So there's a sense of occasion, but this room, now housing the Ginger Room restaurant, doesn't have a feel of opulence. There's nothing very fancy in the set-up. White tablecloths, but the metal bases of these tables are fully visible underneath. Comfortable chairs, but in charcoal grey and of utilitarian metal design. Just some cool, original features - I spy some fantastic art-deco lights through the door, and as we say, loads of privacy and space. There's a good-looking red light feature at the door, a backlist etching of the ginger plant, as it turns out, and I can't help thinking this kind of thing would be cool in the dining room itself, rather than tucked away at the door. But no doubt heritage would have something strict to say about a suggestion so heretical.

Fantastic service too. Right from the get go, when we stuffed up the booking, and it turns out when we call to confirm that they're fully booked, but the French guy on the other end of the phone is determined that if we believed we booked, well, we booked, so he'll fit us in. We'll come early, I offer, and be out by 8pm in time for the next booking. But he won't hear of it. If you book a table at Ginger Room, you're there as long as you like. It's that kind of place.

He serves us beautifully tonight, this French guy, relaxed, professional and helpful.

Ginger Room has abandoned typical entree-main-dessert menus, and opted instead for a whatever-you-like degustation menu, in which you can choose three courses ($59), four courses ($69), or five courses ($79) from any part of the menu you like. Serving sizes are comparable with each other, so if you've opted for a four-course menu as we do, you can go wild and order four meat dishes or four vegetarian dishes, or whatever, in whatever order you like. Hell, you can start with dessert if you want, our guy tells us.

We don't. We betray ourselves as monumentally conventional, and end up with two vegetable dishes, two fish dishes, two meat dishes and two desserts.


It starts with smoked tomato and basil dumplings. The smoked tomato is by far the dominant flavour in these little parcels, also with a welcome touch of heat, and wrapped, I think, in wonton papers, or similar and fried. They're on a very mild carrot puree with a broad beans, roast peanuts, nice crunchy carrots. There's a lot going on here, and I guess what we've got is a play on Asian dumplings with Western flavours, although I'm not sure things are working together very well.

Our other vegetable dish is better. San choy bow, again mixing East and West with what I'm identifying as radicchio leaves, with all that bitterness, holding an intense chilli, soy and mushroom medley, sweet and a generous filling. The Asian theme continues with little cubes of tofu, on the plate, salty bites which don't contribute much, and a little quail egg, little by definition, obviously. Overall, a pretty enjoyable dish.

Next comes fish, and the better of these is our salt and pepper prawns, on a pile of tomato, a little heavy with raw onion, and little blobs of peanut sauce. I like the prawns - crisp and freshly done in a delicate tempura batter, nicely handled. The soft-shell crab could have done with some of this delicacy. The two big chunks of good crab are covered in a heavier batter which feels quite greasy. They're on a ''broth'' of tomato with some enjoyable sourness and loads of heat, plus seaweed and coriander, just not quite coming together as something you might tuck into with a spoon.

The best of the meat dishes, and perhaps the most sensitively cooked dish of the night, is the kangaroo. It comes as sliced strips of very tender meat, dark red in the middle, really well-handled and enjoyable meat. It's been given an indigenous theme, as you do, with native pepper, quandongs, and enoki mushrooms - which are highly influential on the plate and you'd want to be a fan with this much mushroom flavour.

As for the duck, it's rather chewy in that bouncy kind of way, and more difficult to get through. It's a generous duck breast, cinnamon smoked and sliced, and again not over-cooked, but the treatment hasn't lent any tenderness to the meat. The flavour is gently smoky, and alongside is roast pear, dessert-like in its sweetness, radish and watercress, which we like.

The wine list is a strength, some good choices by the glass and a welcome group of half bottles offered. It picks the eyes out of the local wines, and chooses carefully from the hero regions of the world, with wines that you will have to work your way through over several visits.

And to dessert, at which point we're launching into some pretty-looking dishes. I was angling for peanut-butter mousse with nougat ice cream and caramel sauce, but was steered into more sensible places by a mate whose brain doesn't start zinging with desperate urgency at the mention of crazy amounts of sugar. So it's the nectarine sour-cream cake, pretty fluffy, with some really enjoyable maple-syrup ice cream and sugared almonds. If I had my go again, perhaps I could just do four courses of this ice cream and those nuts.

The ''champagne bubble'' is a clear wobbling circle of jelly, not a lot of flavour, but well-named and well, a talking point. Two of these, you could make a bikini top out of them, that sort of thing, but lend us a little leeway, it is that end of the night. There's lychees here, which go with the Asian bent of tonight's menu, and blackberry sorbet.

Which means we're done and farewelling the nice guy who has looked after us so well. We leave a little unconvinced by the food, which has been a little patchy in execution and whose Asian theme feels out of sorts with the surrounds. But we're caught up in the feel of the place and the sense of occasion that eating at the lovely Old Parliament House entails. You dress up for the Ginger Room. You don't wander up the path, so much as sweep up to the entrance, and you enter, rather than push open the door and mosey in. Once here, you take your time, sigh at the history around you, and find a matter of national importance to spill to somebody close by. Or if, like us, you don't run in that crowd, you can just say silly things to each other about the pudding instead.

Address: Old Parliament House, King George Terrace, Parkes

Phone: 6270 8262

Website: www.gingercatering.com.au

Owner: Janet Jeffs

Chef: Janet Jeffs and Mark McGrath

Hours: Dinner Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm

Licensed: Yes, no BYO

Vegetarian: Extensive choices, four dishes of the 12

To pay: Visa, American Express, Mastercard, Eftpos

Wheelchair access: Yes, including disabled toilets

Seats: 60 inside, private dining rooms for 14 and 35

Food: 2/4

Service: 4/4

Wine list: 3/4

Style: 3/4

Value for money: 2/4

Score: 14/20

Summary: All about the grand and slightly clubby atmosphere of Old Parliament House, a special occasion restaurant with great service.

11 something went wrong. 12 not so great tonight. 13 fine for a cheap and cheerful, not so for a place that aspires to the top end. 14 good. 15 really good. 16 great, when can we move in. 17-20 brilliant. The stars are a quick reference to the key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score out of 20.

Kirsten Lawson is Food and Wine editor.