Everyone loves a restaurant with a view, and in a town set in the Limestone Plains, spectacular elevation is quite unusual. So Onred, the restaurant run by brother and sister team Jodie and Ben Johnson at the top of Red Hill, starts with some inbuilt advantages.
Readers may remember Jodie Johnson from rural days, when she was chef at Grazing, in Gundaroo, a restaurant justly renowned for its kitchen garden, the clarity and freshness of the food, and the lovely old building with roaring fires.
Onred is an altogether more formal affair, with the the trappings of a special-occasion restaurant, from the picture windows with spectacular wrap-around views, to a top-rate wine list, white tablecloths, good glasses and comfortable chairs.
One of the things that strikes you as you enter the still slightly 1960s room, with its geometric windows, is the quiet. If there is background music on our visit, it is very low. There is space between tables, and the room is carefully divided up so that small clutches of tables are separated for big tables, giving the whole place a sense of privacy and space at the same time. The weeknight we visit only one section is full.
The wine list is a serious document with an impressive selection by the half bottle, and 13 by the glass. A wide range of Australian wines sits alongside a smattering of French, New Zealand and German wines.
The menu is all entrees, that you mix and match, like a degustation with lots of options. The pricing is sensible, at $72 for four courses no matter what they are, or at price per dish if you choose to have just a few. You can also choose from some large dishes to share, like rabbit hotpot and poached oxtail.
We chose four courses, three savoury and dessert, with help from the friendly staff. Overall, service is competent and relaxed, if a little over-attentive at times with one of our waiters on his first night.
Salmon gravlax is clean in the mouth, with that lovely rich, but not cloying taste and texture that good salmon has, set off with classic accompaniments done with a touch of flair. Small potato croquettes are crunchy and lovely, and the celeriac remoulade adds cut through, like a really good coleslaw.
The sweetbreads with bread sauce are great, the richness of the little cholesterol nightmares married with a great sauce, and given a lovely edge by hazelnuts and sultanas. A very nicely balanced dish, with echoes of Christmas dinner, except you don't have to lie down afterwards.
A little piece of red snapper is jumping fresh and flaking under the fork, teamed with a lovely brandade (thick, creamy salt cod sauce), set off by caramelised leeks. Of all the courses, this is the one that I would have liked to have focused on, eating it as a main. The fashion for serving up a series of entrees - instead of the classic entree, main, dessert - is interesting and offers lots of choice. But when I get to a really good dish, I want to stop trying different things, and give it the time and attention it deserves, and frankly have more of it - and to know whether it as good after 10 or 20 mouthfuls as after just three or four.
Parmesan-baked scallops are sweet little morsels, served warm with very clean crumbs, and surprisingly good with the scallop ceviche (cooked via marination in citrus, and served cold).
Szechuan-glazed duck breast is lovely, rich dark flesh, teamed well with a confit of duck, with zing provided by a classic orange and lemon confit. Buckwheat adds a little neutrality to the dish, as well as proving a scooping-up agent for remnant juices.
Dessert is very good. My partner's slice of perfectly executed white chocolate cake is countered by tangy little lemon meringues and cream. My duo of fresh and dried figs is a lovely combination of rich and clean flavours, with great Mediterranean-inspired accompaniments - yoghurt sorbet, crisp honey wafers and a great hit of pinenut.
Onred is a very pleasant place to spend an evening, with prices that are more than justified by the food service and general vibe of the place.
I sense, however, a certain restraint in the cooking, perhaps brought on by the special-occasion nature of the place. It will be interesting to see how the place develops at the hands of this talented sister and brother team.
Address: 50 Red Hill Drive, Red Hill.
Phone: 6273 3517.
Owner: Ben and Jodie Johnson.
Chef: Jodie Johnson.
Hours: Lunch, Friday noon-2pm, dinner Tuesday to Saturday, 6pm-10pm.
Licensed: Yes, plus BYO Tuesday to Thursday, corkage $12 a bottle.
Vegetarian: Decent range.
To Pay: Visa, American Express, Mastercard, Eftpos.
Wheelchair access: No, there are stairs up to the first floor.
Wine list: 3/a
Value for money: 2/4
Summary: Good food and wine with a stunning view, for a special occasion.
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.)
Catriona Jackson is director of communications and external liaison at the Australian National University and a food writer.