Fine dining in Canberra these days is often good, always expensive, and sometimes just a bit dull. Everything looks and tastes lovely - the glasses gleam, tablecloths are crisp - but there can be a caution that holds whole experience back, making it all very nice but not very exciting. Not so at Aubergine.
Aubergine has long been a staple in ACT fine dining and now the rest of the nation knows it isn't just good, but great - after it took out two hats, regional restaurant of the year and regional wine list of the year in this year's Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.
Chef and now co-owner Ben Willis took up the reins in July 2008, and has being going from strength to strength since. Let's hope the celebrity doesn't go to his head - but that just doesn't seem likely. Willis and his team are clearly more interested in food than fame. Aubergine has all the hallmarks of a place run by the people who own it, putting all they have into the enterprise. It is not just the food and wine that are impressive, but the assured, enthusiastic competence that sets the tone.
Many of the dishes are clearly influenced by the availability of a particular ingredient, and this is to be loudly applauded. It is a relatively simple thing for a good home cook to discover an unusual or hard-to-get ingredient and use it to great effect, quite another to regularly incorporate this kind of spontaneity into menu planning. It is a sign of a chef who is really thinking, and whose vigour has not been dulled by serving customers night after night.
The evening we visit the options are three courses for $75, and five for $95, a top-value deal at this level. We start with prawns; and the pork belly and crab.
The menu descriptions are straightforward and refreshingly devoid of froth and bubble; you just get a description of what's on the plate and how it is prepared. Prawns are poached, and served with speck, chorizo, globe artichoke and garlic custard.
The prawns are dotted about the plate, small and sweet, and spectacularly teamed with the salty speck and chorizo, with a lovely edge provided by the globe artichoke. The garlic custard is genius - slippery, like silken tofu - it sends the dish on to a different level, providing a sensational texture contrast.
This is a dish that works with a familiar combination of ingredients, and is elevated by the wonderful quality of the raw materials, but also by the real skill and wit used in combining them. There is no clutter of flavours, nothing obliterates other components, and all plays a part.
The pork belly is likewise a wonderful balance of confit pork, with lovely pieces of blue swimmer crab, tender and tasting of the sea, beautifully accompanied by warrigal greens.
If you are squeamish about tongue, don't let this put you of the braised lamb tongue, little pieces of wonderfully flavoured tongue, interrupted by a bunch of sparkling fresh little vegies and a beautiful parsley puree. This is a dish you should not miss.
The service is attentive, but not suffocating, and very well-informed. Clearly the staff here love what they do, and work as part of a tight-knit team. Peter Bell, the sommelier, is a stand out, making interesting recommendations through the meal, which all work as harmoniously as the food on the plate. Particular favourites are the Valerie riesling from the Hunter Valley, and the sweet French banyuls with dessert. His list is diverse, easy to read, and well selected. The restaurant is in a relatively small space. Don't expect statement architecture or a high-fashion fit-out; rather muted, comfortable furnishing and quality tableware.
In mains, the venison is a triumph, beautifully tender and flavoursome, with a wonderfully contrasting baton of celeriac, grilled on the outside, which worked wonderfully with the sweetness of the meat and braised red cabbage. A tiny venison scotch egg is a lovely treat.
Rainbow trout comes smoked and fresh, and teamed with some spectacular pickled and roasted cauliflower, as well as a little prosciutto. A clean and elegant dish, the cauliflower adding real excitement.
To finish, a dish of fresh mulberries and rhubarb is studded with fresh green almonds, a little oat biscuit and basil. Every mouthful of this wonderful, not-too-sweet dessert is worth savouring. This is the kind of thing you could eat every day, if you were lucky enough to be able to, and it offers a lovely alternative to other more traditional and rich options.
At Aubergine, every mouthful is an adventure, and the excitement doesn't wane as you move through the dish. There are no big-bang, cheap tricks. Rather, beautifully wrought balances and contrasts, with flavours and textures in magnificent harmony. This is food that makes you want to eat slowly, so you don't miss anything, but at the same time you are driven to get another bit on the fork. Wiping up last smears of sauce is impossible to resist. A great meal at a great Canberra restaurant.
>> Catriona Jackson is director of communications and external liaison at the Australian National University and a food writer.
Address: 18 Barker Street, Griffith
Phone: 6260 8666
Owners: Ben and Andrea Willis
Chef: Ben Willis
Hours: Dinner Monday to Saturday from 6pm
Licensed: Yes, plus BYO Monday to Thursday only, corkage $15 a bottle
Vegetarian: Carefully designed options, as beautiful as the meat dishes
To pay: Visa, American Express, Mastercard, Eftpos
Wheelchair access: Yes, including disabled toilets
Seats: 55 inside and some outside in hot weather
Food: 4/4 stars
Wine: 4/4 stars
Style: 3/4 stars
Value: 4/4 stars
Service: 4/4 stars
Summary: Behind every mouthful of Ben Willis's beautifully presented food are ideas and real talent. They are not taking anything for granted at Aubergine - this is a really exciting place to eat, with charming service to match.
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.