I have been on the hunt for a top-notch steak in Canberra for quite some time. It's one of those things that seems quite straightforward, but has so far eluded me.
I am not looking for anything particularly revolutionary. My favourite steakhouse in Melbourne, whose name I won't mention, but is located on a hill in Kew, focuses on sourcing very good steak and cooking it consistently well. Yes, their wine list is also excellent, and the sides, too, but it is the steak that really sets it apart.
What I'm trying to get at is that I'm a steak purist. It doesn't bother me if the dining room isn't fancy or dessert isn't perfect as long as you give me good steak, properly cooked.
Enter Meat & Wine Co - I love when a restaurant tells you exactly what it's going to deliver. I'm listening.
The restaurant promises Afro-centric fine dining, fine wines and the best steak in Canberra. It's safe to say then that I have pretty high expectations.
Meat & Wine Co opened last month on the ground floor of the New York-inspired Constitution Place development in the CBD. This Canberra store has been five years coming; keen carnivores may have spotted signs that it was going to open on the Kingston Foreshore a few years ago, but alas they didn't come to fruition.
It is a stunning space. Metallic cloth squares are suspended from the ceiling, creating a feeling of dining in an outdoor tent. It feels warm and rich, filled with leather seats and wood grain tables.
Far more than just meat and wine, the menu is surprisingly lengthy. Sure there are steaks, but also ribs (beef and pork), skewers and a selection of "favourites". There's biltong and boerewors, but also Szechuan calamari with nam jim, which seems a little out of place on a menu that has African Pride written on its front cover.
The wine list, at least by the glass, is surprisingly short, young and fairly predictable. Think Dal Zotto, Cloudy Bay, Cape Mentelle. Most are from Australia and New Zealand, with a couple of internationals sprinkled in. The one African wine by the glass, a Porcupine Ridge Shiraz isn't available.
There is a selection of rare and back vintage wines, but at $30 a glass, and none older than 2016, it's an easy pass. It's hard not to notice the significant mark ups on wine here - both by the glass and by the bottle.
But I'm here for the steak, so let's get to that. I appreciate that the menu lists what to expect - if you order medium, you will get a steak that is "pink in the centre, hot temperature".
Much like the nursery rhyme, Jack Sprat could eat no fat, and I doth love no lean, which makes our decision easy. My 350g rib-eye with a marble score of 2+ ($55) is a thing of beauty - it arrives glistening, with distinct char marks and is perfectly cooked as promised, medium and pink throughout. It's a bit sweet, strangely - I'm really not much of a fan, and I'm a little confused until I realise that all steaks here are grilled with a "unique basting" sauce.
My partner's 300g fillet also with a marble score of 2+ ($66) is similarly well cooked, though the basting sauce again detracts from the steak. I'm not sure why a restaurant would go to the trouble of sourcing quality steak, only to mask its flavour - and why they don't offer steaks as is. It over-complicates the perfection of a simple thing - steak cooked over fire.
There are some good things here - the chips that come with the steak are tasty, and entrees even more so. The Portuguese prawns ($19) are delightful, served with tomato and barley grains, and a refreshing salsa. The boerewors ($16) are good too, beef sausages with coriander and cumin, served with a crunchy corn croquette.
Farm salad ($7) is simple but effective. Cold, crisp leaves of iceberg, cucumber and tomato in a honey mustard dressing. It's a nice foil against a big, meaty steak - light and with a gentle sweetness.
Dessert is lovely, a classic crème brulee ($14). They haven't tried to reinvent the wheel, simply adding interest with shortbread and fresh blackberries. It's surprisingly sophisticated and a nice note to end on.
Service feels rather transactional. To be fair, it's no easy feat running a 100-seater restaurant and while staff are pleasant, everything feels very impersonal. Lots of diners mean high traffic and quick table turnovers, plus staffing is no easy feat in these times. Here, a little something seems to have gotten lost in the process. For instance, 15 minutes after we've been seated, my partner's phone rings - it's the restaurant checking to see if we are still planning to come to dinner.
It feels like Meat & Wine Co are trying to be a lot of things - a high-end steakhouse, a place for fine dining, an Afro-centric restaurant. I'm not sure which, if any, of those heights it reaches. It is, however, a perfectly good restaurant with a lot of meat on its menu, in a striking space, but one where the execution feels like the tenth restaurant in a chain - a little bit cookie cutter.
Meat & Wine Co
Address: 1 Constitution Ave, City
Phone: 02 51345988
Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, noon-10pm
Owners: Seagrass Boutique Hospitality Group
Chef: Craig McCabe
Noise: Tending towards the loud
Vegetarian: It's called Meat & Wine Co