Gosh, Monster is cool. Dark and moody, its eclectic fit out still feels current and trendy now, more than five years on. Monster is cool in the way your hipster cousin with the ripped designer jeans and vintage vinyl collection is. So cool, in fact that when you see all the staff wearing black masks, for a moment, you assume it's just the hip new thing to do.
The badges on the staff that read "masking for a friend" are a subtle reminder that we are living in times of a global pandemic. Sometimes here in Canberra, it's almost too easy to forget. Here, for instance, where restaurants are full and life feels mostly normal.
There aren't many empty tables at 6.30pm - I can see why it's been so hard to get a booking. Monster is one of the few fine dining place still offering an à la carte menu, though it is worth noting that it's only open for dinner Thursday through to Sunday.
The round, open fireplace welcomes you into the dining room, and on a wet and windy Canberra night it's nice to be seated between the fire and the floor to ceiling windows. There are lots of beautiful design elements throughout the almost cavernous dining space, from the chandelier to the terrazzo floors.
There's an emphasis on sustainable and locally sourced produce in the Japanese and modern Australian influenced menu. Aside from a la carte options, there's also a six-course set menu ($110 per person) which seems expensive but does include a cocktail. Plus it saves us from having to make any decisions, which is always a win at places like this where everything on the menu sounds delicious.
The smoked aperitif has got to be the best start I've had to a meal all year. Clarified tomato meets gin, chartreuse and citrus in an impeccably well balanced cocktail. It's Monster's take on a bloody Mary, and just like everything else here, it's swanky, that little bit extra but still a lot of fun.
There's wood chips, glass domes and a blowtorch - the theatricality of it all is entertaining, but it isn't showmanship for the sake of it. The drink itself is very cleverly concocted, balancing acidity, savouriness, smoke and umami.
It's a perfect bridge into the tuna tataki - which quite honestly is one of the best dishes I've had in a long time. It's an explosion of flavour in a tiny mouthful; seared tuna, herb oil and creamy buttermilk, a touch of acidity from yosazu jelly with a pop of saltiness from pearls of salmon caviar that bring it all together.
Truffled daikon soup is another highlight. It's one of those deceptively simple looking Japanese dishes that packs a punch of umami - 12-hour slow cooked daikon in a mushroomy, kombu dashi finished with a truffle tapenade. It's sweet, deeply savoury and the use of the simple earthiness of a humble daikon to marry it all together is really quite clever.
The wagyu rump is good too, if a little less inspired. The beef is rich, perfectly cooked and cuts like butter. It's served with pickled king brown mushroom, leek ash and finished with a rich jus and jalapeno verde.
Somewhere between fried rice and a risotto, the Maremma donburi is a modern take on a traditional Japanese rice bowl. Pulled duck, Japanese sticky rice and sorrel come together with a generous helping of beetroot. There's the slightest hum of chilli in the background that ties it all together in a very clever way, but it doesn't quite have the magic of the previous dishes. While the flavour is good, it feels like a filler dish - it's a lot of rice and not that much duck.
I've requested to swap out the set menu dessert for a chocolate option and the kitchen kindly obliges. There's a decadent dark chocolate mousse, toasted wheat ice cream, with chocolate soil, pistachio and preserved apricot. The nuttiness of the toasted wheat ice cream is strangely comforting and even though it's a cold dessert, the deep, rich flavours make it a good wintery one.
I'm not a fan of the whipped blue cheese, but the rest of the three cheese plate with semolina crackers and honeycomb is a nice way to end the meal. It would go well with a glass of wine, but we struggle to get a waiter's attention. While most of the dishes are on the smaller side by the end of the set menu I'm pleasantly full.
There's a lot to love about Monster - the gorgeous fit out and eclectic vibes, and of course, the clever and inspired food. Quality of produce is clearly paramount, and there's a restrained simplicity in the approach here, reflecting its strong Japanese influence. It's fine dining food at fine dining prices, but the service isn't quite as sharp as the rest of the offering here at Monster. I'm not sure it's the fault of the service staff as there's not many wait staff around and they seem to cover quite a lot of ground. A little more attention to detail in making sure drinks are always topped up, and a little more interest in the food would go a long way.
Monster Kitchen and Bar
Address: 25 Edinburgh St, New Acton
Hours: Dinner, Thursday to Saturday, 6-10.30pm
Owners: Ovolo Group
Chef: Creative Culinary Partner, Ian Curley; head chef Kenny Tse
Vegetarian: A few options
Noise: Not a problem