Most reviews don't begin with you pulling into an open-air car park outside a Kidstart activity centre in Wanniassa. Then again, Table by Canberra Gourmet isn't like most restaurants.
It seats only eight people, four times a week. There's no phone number - you book online, without seeing a menu. Payment ($135) is upfront and the instructions are abundantly clear about arriving on time at 6.30pm. They do not cater to dietary requirements - at least, that's what the website says, although the chef double checks on arrival.
That's a lot of rules for what is really quite a charming set up run by one man and his wife. Chef Thomas Heinrich, who is running both kitchen and front of house on his own today, was once head chef at Sage Dining Rooms. The pandemic hit and, while he continues to work in a consulting role at Sage, he's found a new home at this shopfront in Wanniassa. Table and Canberra Gourmet (selling frozen gourmet meals) are his passion projects. And apparently, his wife Larah told him that he needed to channel his boredom.
Inside, it's more kitchen than dining room; Thomas tells us it used to be a takeaway pizza shop. The upside though, is being able to see everything the chef is doing. There are no written menus but there's more cutlery than I've ever seen on a table at once, which begs the question - how many courses will we be having tonight?
It started off at six courses, Thomas tells us, but then increased to eight. Twelve weeks in, we're at 15 courses, "because I got bored" he tells us. Sure, I think to myself, I've been to dinners where they count each tiny tartlet on the plate as a course, and somehow I still have to do a fast food run on my way home. Not so here, there are indeed 15 unique courses, and dinner is a beautifully paced affair.
The meal starts off with a series of delicious small bites, like an avocado escabeche on a wonderfully crisp circle of brik pastry, lime prawns with wasabi tobiko and tamarind beef with phyllo pastry. Even the bread is impressive - tiny, still warm crumpets with scallop butter and smoked caviar.
The inventiveness and execution only increase as we move through to more substantial dishes. The elegant Balmain bug with black garlic and puffed wheat is a highlight, though the simpler-looking dishes are impressive in their own right too. There's a mushroom air that's somehow light and rich, full of umami goodness.
Thomas' wife Larah is of Filipino descent and Asian influences are artfully woven in throughout the meal in the form of a pie tee (a Malaysian street snack) or dustings of nori on phyllo pastry. It stands out in signature dishes like the Filipino-style slow-cooked crispy pork belly that is sticky and rich, perfectly balanced with bone marrow and sweet potato puree and crispy lotus root.
Just as I had thought we were done with savoury courses, more appear. Lamb, fennel and potato tuille and curried dates, followed by a beautifully rich ash seared kangaroo and fennel and potato gratin finished with a silky macadamia puree that brings an earnest earthiness and anchors the dish.
Dessert is simpler; more home style. There's a milk chocolate and wattle seed soufflé, along with a banana tarte tatin with sour cream. In between washing cutlery (we'd run out a few courses ago), Thomas packs up the rest of tarte tatin into plastic containers for us to take home.
I can't say I've ever been given takeaway by my local fine dining restaurant, but that's precisely why it's quite so delightful. It's like eating at a friend's house meets fine dining - sure you'll have to pour your own water but you'll get a generous amount of food, with the bonus of being able to ask the chef all the kitchen questions you want.
It's not paint by numbers food either - you know the kind, with smears and foams. Chef Thomas Heinrich is no stranger to fine dining. He's worked at a string of five star hotel restaurants including the Four Seasons New York, Hyatt Chicago, and most recently The Langham in Sydney. It seems like the other guests tonight are big fans of his work at The Langham because they've tracked him down and driven all the way from Sydney for dinner.
The wine list is short and sweet, local and by the bottle only. There are favourites from Lark Hill, Mount Majura and Clonakilla, all very reasonably priced. The O'Riada Shiraz is a steal at $45 - I've seen it at my local for a similar price.
They've only been open 12 weeks, but there's a lot to like about Table by Canberra Gourmet. It's charmingly Canberran; all the good parts of fine dining in a down to earth way, brilliant food without the stuffiness. Each course is well thought out, elegantly plated and expertly executed, something I continue to be surprised by given that the chef has no kitchen help.
The shared table with strangers is perhaps not an ideal night out after a long work week, but like all things, can be as fun as you make it. My only piece of advice would be to ditch the car - meeting new people is a lot easier with another glass of wine. Or better still, book out all eight seats with friends so you can have the place to yourselves.
Address: 2/65 Sternberg Crescent, Wanniassa
Hours: Dinner, Thursday to Saturday; Lunch, Saturday
Owners: Thomas and Larah Heinrich
Chefs: Thomas and Larah Heinrich
Noise: Not an issue, but difficult to have a private conversation at a shared table
Vegetarian: Best to consult the restaurant before booking
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