I'm not sure what it says about a) the state of Canberra dining, or b) the prodigious talent of Ben Willis that Aubergine still sits here, firmly atop the fine dining hierarchy in our city.
When I refer to the state of Canberra dining, it's not reflecting one jot on the excellence of Aubergine. Rather, it's an expression of surprise that it has been able to stay this good for this long.
As far as I can make out, Willis has owned this small upmarket eatery at the Griffith shops for perhaps 13 years. He hasn't missed a beat, astonishing when you consider the pressures that tend to drive people out or to less ambitious ventures, and when you consider that trends and tastes changes, after all.
But here we are, once again in the intimate dining room, oddly shaped but given a sense of luxe by the tall, flowing dark curtains, and the shades of brown with which the dining space is decked. It's full, but with such limited seating it feels like the numbers of staff here are not so far off numbers of diners. They're well trained. Things are attentive, and everyone seems well versed in what's on the plate, which is just as well since it's the kind of food you want to ponder, eat a bite at a time, then ponder a little more, check out another element of the plate, and then have a bit of a chat with your dining partner about how extraordinary it is.
One of those chats when we eat here is always on the subject of Willis's affinity with ingredients more often found in the garden than the supermarket. Like mulberries, which we have been so happy to find here on other visits. I can't remember a gooseberry dish but I feel it's the kind of thing he would be lunging for in grandma's garden and creating magic with.
Aubergine is not cheap, at $120 a head for a compulsory set menu.
A couple of intricate bites to start. Two thin mulberry-coloured beetroot crisps, topped with a slice of beetroot, held to its cracker by a smoked eel cream. Crisp, salty, sharp. With such great ingredients. Two more crackers hold a pile of cured mince, halved tiny tomatoes and "kai lan" blossom", which are the little flowers of Chinese broccoli. Also really likeable.
We're less thrilled by an avocado dish that follows. It's an avocado puree, with thin sliced avocado and a thin round of tomato, topped with powdered nori, all of it sitting on "tempura nasturtium". It looks great with a supra green puree, and the idea of throwing what I think must be a tempura leaf rather than flower in a tempura batter and frying it thin and crisp is very cool. But the tomato and avocado aren't enough to deliver excitement in the flavours.
Blue eye trevalla with mussels, butternut pumpkin and mustard butter is a dish where each of the elements both stand up separately and come together beautifully. The fish is meaty and exceptionally handled, so pure, the mustard with a slice of pumpkin is intense, the mussels taste like they've been poached in something aromatic. Really good.
Chicken is next, and again the breast meat is exceptional. This must have been the yard's uber chicken. It is presented as a thick slice with gently caramelised skin, recognising the delicacy of chicken breast, and alongside it is rugged leg meat coated in a dark and sticky sauce, smoky, and served as little pieces sandwiching a slice of mushroom on a rosemary skewer. There's a thin chicken jus, a little pile of silverbeet, and a blob of chestnut puree, such a dense nut. This is delicious and preciously handed. But it is also the beginning of a kind of decadent angst that starts to sit over me about the perfection of each cut of meat tonight. We're served only the very best of each beast, and so many beasts are represented in our meal.
Now comes lamb, a beautiful, glistening lamb chop, pink and tender meat, alongside a richer, darker slice of belly, strong and lip smacking with its thin layer of fat. There's a slice of roast pear, crisp, and another little half of roast artichoke with an artichoke puree, very rich. Lemon pepper in the sauce cuts this richness.
Goodness, by now we are overwhelmed with the precision that has gone into each of these creations. And as always at Aubergine, the dessert is a standout, never resorting to a sweet throwaway end. Tonight, it's "sorrel ice cream, yoghurt, blackberries", which goes nowhere near describing the complexity of what's on the plate. The yoghurt is like a large marshmallow cap sitting over the sorrel ice cream which is very green, and sharp more than sweet. The sweetness comes in a rice-bubble type cracker; the blackberries are chosen for their perfection and beauty. A sophisticated, fresh and respectful dessert.
Which about sums up Aubergine as a whole. But we're not done, because Aubergine is taking this all the way to the end. The final bites are two little apple jelly squares, tasting precisely of apple, coated with sherbet. And two brilliant little chocolates, the delicate chocolate shell enclosing liquid licorice. Of course it's licorice! That's just Aubergine through and through.
Address: 18 Barker St, Griffith
Hours: Dinner, Wednesday to Saturday, from 6pm
Owner: Ben Willis
Chef: Ben Willis
Vegetarian: Yes, they cater
Noise: No problem
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