Simplicity, you would have to say, is firmly on the plate. Gone is fiddle, unless it's foraged and reinvented as an intense form of itself. And here is generous and big-flavoured simple food. Meat, especially. Ox Eatery is the new venture of Chris Hansen, who has been on the edges of Canberra's restaurant scene, consulting here and there after he sold Cape Cod at Deakin (before that, he was part of the early Chairman and Yip team) and has now plunged back in, looking after the catering at the new East Hotel on Canberra Avenue opposite the Kingo pub.
Ox Eatery is the restaurant at the East Hotel - a small bunch of booth-type tables at one end of a room; the other given over to a bar with an emphasis on special whiskies and gins (now complete with Fever Tree tonic, which is evidently, as the aficionados would tell you, the thing to have with exclusive gins). A long bar stretches the length of the room, broken up by a big, open rotisserie, on which the meat slowly turns. Five chickens are threaded into a skewer soon after we sit, and they're coming to a crisp conclusion as we are doing the same. Both all good.
There are loads of things to like about Ox. Among them, the essential finger-food nature of what's served here. We are given cutlery and cloth napkins. The napkins we use, the cutlery barely at all. There's only so many ways to handle a rib of tender, fatty, beautiful goat meat, served simply as rotisserie meat, dressed only with green-olive tapenade - and none of them involve cutlery. This pure pile of goat meat ($31) is quite stunning - there's so little to it, but achieving this much flavour and tenderness is no simple thing, and starts, obviously, with the right goat and goat supplier. On another little plate is a pile of roast potato and pumpkin pieces and there's a bowl of well-dressed good greens as well, which cuts through all the meat and the oil handily.
The menu isn't formal in its structure. You can order small plates of stuff, or meats from the rotisserie or bar food from the blackboard. We do all of the above, starting with duck rillettes from the bar menu ($15). This comes presented a little self-consciously in its own small jar, with its own Ox seal, and a seal of fat on top of the shredded meat. Well, okay, cute presentation if you're eating upstairs in your room and makes sense presumably given the plethora of dining spaces - private dining rooms, bar space and the like. I always like rustic shreddy, textured, fatty rillettes, but these are the mild tasting and finely processed version, and served too cold. Nevertheless, it's a little jar of likeable duck meat and, with melba toasts and gherkins alongside, is very good bar food.
Speaking of which, we also order ''sliders'' ($20) from the bar menu. This term is new but bugging me already. What's wrong with ''mini-burger''? More prosaic, sure, but also more descriptive and less follower-of-fashion. Anyway, sliders are in fashion, and here they're great. I love this kind of food. Four little burgers, easy to pick up in one hand, crisp and soft buns, pork meat and loads of aioli inside. Again, simple, satisfying, perfect for the times.
Roast bone marrow on toast ($9) is two fat little toasts, a pile of sweet and tart caramelised onion, and slivers of bone marrow on top. Savoury, fatty, perfectly sized for eating with your fingers. Love 'em.
And we order fried haloumi ($8), which is kept simple and done well. Sweet and slightly caramelised on the outside, salty inside.
The waiter takes our order without pen and paper, which always makes me nervous. I worry for them and always seem to order in a more disorganised fashion as a result, which makes me still more convinced they'll get something wrong. We're on an exponential anxiety curve. But nothing goes wrong. The order is delivered as requested, and all evening people are putting and taking in a regular rhythm and filling water from those replica colonial-era tin jugs - the fries come in a little tin bucket of the same type (told you this place was on trend).
Another great thing here is the music. I don't know what we're listening to, but it's great, not intrusive but excellent enough that you notice and want to listen in a bit. And there's a pleasant buzz from the customers - of which there are plenty, in the bar and in the restaurant, and I like the fact that the darkness is falling out the windows and nobody's turning on too many lights inside, expect for the lights under our booth seats which make our toes glow ever more brightly as the dim descends. Good place to show off your shoes or come with painted toes, and all makes for a lovely ambience. Although I can imagine getting annoyed with the chairs if you like to lean back - it's leather banquette-style seating and you're forced to sit up straight without support - since if you lean back you end up leaning right back and if you weren't holding yourself together, you could just slide under.
The wine list is the kind of list to get people who know about wine pretty excited. It's like someone's excellent cellar, representing outstanding small and large producers, with back vintages of loads of wines, including seven vintages of Rockford Basket Press Shiraz and three of Bannockburn Chardonnay. It also offers a bunch of wines at carafe - or half-bottle - size, which is an excellent initiative, plus most of the wines by the glass are also available as 75-millilitre tasters. And for whisky drinkers, there's a serious list, properly explained. It's good stuff, and if you get Hansen tableside, you'll be well looked after for wine. We don't and are left to flounder a little ourselves.
The dessert menu, like the rest, is short and sweet. We tuck into a plate of chocolate and marshmallow ($12) - the squares of marshmallow made of kiwifruit and passionfruit, the chocolate squares soft and rich, and some pieces of sticky butterscotch on the plate as well. And a date pudding ($13), which is more cake than pudding, but nevertheless enjoyable - darkly, robustly spiced, with good ice-cream. Really, we're settled in so happily tonight that if we didn't have kids and crayons and weren't driving home, we'd be studying the whisky list by now. It's that kind of place, and a most welcome newcomer to Canberra dining. Places like Ox will set the scene for the new style of more casual eating here and you've got to give thanks for that. Already a favourite.
Address: East Hotel, 69 Canberra Avenue, Kingston (restaurant entrance off Giles Street)
Phone: 6178 0041
Owner: Chris Hansen
Chef: Imrahil Leeder
Hours: Monday to Saturday, lunch noon-2.30pm, dinner 6pm-10.30pm, tasting kitchen and bar food until about 11pm.
Licensed: Yes, no BYO
Vegetarian: Wild mushroom pie, artichoke pasta and some bar food
Wheelchair access: Yes, including disabled toilet
To pay: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Diner's Club
Seats: 60, plus 120 in the bar, private rooms from eight to 80 (extra cost)
Summary: Really good food pitched perfectly at the casual times in a cool, casual setting, plus a great wine list and bar.
Wine list 4/4
Value for money 4/4
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.