Oh how the restaurant world has changed since I last wandered into a restaurant for the purpose of a review. I visited Lazy Su back in late March, which turned out to be our last review until July 28 when we decided it was time to start supporting businesses which had persevered through these strange times and start reviewing again.
But one thing that occurred to me during the break was perhaps we needed to broaden our thinking when it came to reviewing. During shutdown, or lockdown, or quarantine, whatever you want to call these past few lost months, dining out became a whole different proposition even if it meant dining in. Instead of wandering into Braddon or Kingston, instead of booking a table at one of the town's top restaurants, the idea of what made a good meal completely changed.
We started supporting local restaurants, perhaps ones which would deliver for free because you lived within a 5km radius, others you could walk to and be home before your takeaway meal was cold. We experimented with takeaway and home delivery and eventually, when doors opened again to some degree, we didn't rush back to the same old routine. Don't get me wrong. Our top restaurants did a cracking job through it all, rethinking ways to feed people, indeed a delivery from Pilot in Ainslie was a highlight, and people raved over the fresh pasta from Italian and Sons.
So I've decided - it's good to be the food editor - that I'll leave the proper reviewing to Kirsten and Natasha, who, let's face it, are far more knowledgeable about food than I am, and I'm heading into the 'burbs to find those kind of places that are still deserving of our support even if there's not a splash of foam or a sliver of truffle to be seen.
Which is why I'm at Rusty Mal's in Hackett. The corner spot once housed Wilbur's, a popular local cafe. The spot was vacant for a while but then Steve and Arthur Savoulidis, who had originally opened Wilbur's 10 years ago, saw a fresh opportunity. Rusty Mal's opened in late 2019, and remained open for 11 weeks before shutting down for COVID, and the door's remained closed for 11 weeks. Now, like other places, it's sorting out its new normal.
One thing about these places is that it's easy to convince yourself the food is going to be a gamble: burgers, pizza and pasta are easy to do very poorly, with no real love to lift them beyond the ordinary.
But Rusty Mal's does. I'm dining with three ravenous teenagers. I tell them we have to mix things up a bit but they all want burgers. Thankfully, from a reviewing point of view, they all choose different burgers. A Rivett, with beef, bacon, caramelised onion, lettuce, tomato and a garlic harissa mayo ($20); a Mills, which is a chicken schnitzel burger with bacon, a fried egg, cheese, lettuce, tomato and aioli ($22); and a Taylor, the beer battered fish version with slaw and tartare sauce ($20). Each is served with a side of chips, on one of those little paper lined baskets. They look really cute.
And they taste great too. One teenager is raving about the caramelised onion and garlic harissa mayo, the other loves that the schnitzel is tender but has a good crispy coating, the fish not drowned in batter with the slaw adding a tangy bite. It's quite good fun getting teenagers to describe food. You should try it sometime.
I order the creamy chicken pesto pasta ($22) and I am blown away by how delicious this simple meal is. There's vibrancy from some spinach, a little bite from well-cooked mushrooms, the pasta perfectly cooked, the pesto is creamy but done with enough restraint to not overpower the dish. Indeed, I'd be pretty close to saying it's one of the best pasta dishes I've ever eaten, anywhere.
The burgers have beaten the kids, they don't want dessert but I'm keen to try the limoncello sorbet ($6). It's served in a scooped out lemon and it's creamy, not icy, sour and sweet at the same time. The kids like the serving choice and it provokes an hilarious discussion about which other fruit you could do the same with. Watermelons might be too big to bring to the table and you'd need a long spoon to eat the sorbet out of a banana. He had to think about that task for a long time.
While we're enjoying our meal I notice one of Canberra's top restaurateurs come in with this family. Or at least I think it's him. He confirms it the next day, it was his first time there but he'll be back. He enjoyed his meal too and given he's serving some of the best pasta in town that's a big call.
Rusty Mal's is the kind of place every local suburban shopping centre needs. Good honest food with a few surprises on the menu, a cheerful drinks menu, and some friendly neighbourly service. Here's hoping we find more places like it. Let us know your favourite.
Address: 14 Hackett Place, Hackett
Phone: 0456 651 682
Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, 3-9pm; Sunday 3-8pm
Owners: Steve and Arthur Savoulidis
Chef: Pradeep Gamage
Vegetarian: Plenty of options
Noise: No problem