There are some nights where all you want to do is find somewhere warm and fill your belly with comfort food. The Old Canberra Inn, in its new incarnation at least, has become something of a local for the residents of the inner north. The bikies have moved out, the hipsters have moved in, and there's a whole new vibe to the 162-year-old inn.
And on this cold Tuesday night the fires are burning and the place is full. There are families finishing up an early dinner, a few blokes settling in in front of the television watching Australia play England in the cricket World Cup, in the back room trivia is in full swing.
We're seated at a table close to a fireplace, but not too close, the OCI is warm and welcoming anyway. I love the idea of the leather couches but wonder how I'd balance a plate on my lap. I covet the corner, tucked away on the left hand side, it's an intimate space for a little group and tonight it's full of young things celebrating a birthday. The crowd at the bar ebbs and flows, perhaps inbetween trivia rounds, sampling the ever-changing array of beers and a wine list with a decidedly local touch.
It's great to see so many Canberra region wines on the list: Lake George, Long Rail Gully, Mt Majura, Freeman out at Hilltops and Lerida Estate. While my companion works her way through the local whites, I try a glass each of the roses, Freeman's Rondo has been a favourite on other occasions, but tonight the Lerida Estate Pinot Noir 2018 is the winner. I've decided rose is a winter wine too, working well with the deeper flavours of the cooler season.
And one thing we love about the OCI menu is that it is seasonal. There's a little selection of Winter Warmers on the standard menu: red wine braised beef shortribs with crispy parmesan polenta and chimichurri ($34); rare pan-fried kangaroo fillet with carrot, parsnip and beetroot chips, green beans and beetroot jam ($25); and the specials menu too, which changes weekly, also reflects the season.
As much as we both want to order our favourites, those meals you're never disappointed with when you're a regular visitor, it's probably wrong to order chicken parmigiana and rump steak for the purpose of a restaurant review. These "big plates" all come with two sides and we always order the to-die-for garlic mash and green beans.
But no, tonight we find some things that surprise us. We start with a nod to schnitzel, the crumbed haloumi with romesco sauce ($14) come out looking like thick fish fingers. The cheese is full of flavour and a great texture but perhaps the crumb is a little bland. The romesco sauce however makes up for it, it's a nice blend of roasted capsicum and herbs. Our other starter is the salt and lemon pepper dusted baby calamari with citrus aioli ($15), the calamari is served in big pieces, but tender enough to pull apart with your fingers and double dip in the creamy aioli.
We decide to order mains off the specials menu as there's a couple of things which pique our interest. Even my foodie friend doesn't know what a suppli is so we google it and order the panfried free-range chicken supreme with coriander and leek suppli, Asian greens and orange, star anise and pink grapefruit sauce ($26). A suppli is like a big flat arancini ball essentially, here it's the pedestal for tender sections of chicken, surrounded by the sauce which is sweet, but not too sweet, the pink grapefruit cutting through the richness. I like the dish, homely but with a twist.
The next dish is deadly. Perhaps literally. A "tomahawk" of pasture reared pork loin weighing in at 500g ($45). It would hurt if you threw it at someone, but the pork is tender and delicious. It's served with the much maligned Brussels sprout but these ones are roasted and caramelised and delicious, there are roasted chestnuts too which are creamy and satisfying. A twist here is the green apple gel which is dotted through the wholegrain mustard jus, a fancy apple sauce that's sour and interesting and just the right touch. The only disappointing thing about this dish is the crackling, the big strips are way too tough and there's none of that succulent porkiness about them. They stay on the plate.
It's late, Aaron Finch is scoring runs at Lords, the trivia crowd is leaving, and when we go to order dessert we're told the kitchen closed at 9.30. We had set our eyes on the chocolate maple bread and butter pudding ($12) but we don't mind, the tomahawk has filled us to the brim (and we packed up leftovers of it to take home).
The group celebrating the birthday start singing Happy Birthday (Max is turning 26) and I offer to take a photograph of them, happy, young, among friends. Max, dear boy, offers us a slice of his cake, a moist lemon and poppy seed creation, and that does us for dessert. Indeed he decides to share the cake among the patrons, going from table to table sharing the love.
And that's what the OCI is about. A place that feels like home, where everyone is a friend, the food is a step up from pub food, but there's nothing pretentious about it.
Old Canberra Inn
Address: 195 Mouat St, Lyneham
Owners: Ben Johnston, Nick Diver and Kalina Koloff
Chef: Fraser Rowntree
Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 11.30am-10pm; Friday and Saturday 11.30am-late. Kitchen opens at noon and serves til late.
Wheelchair access: No
Vegetarian: A good selection of both vegetarian and vegan meals.
Noise: Noisy, it's a functioning pub remember.