Fine dining was not at the top of my mind when I decided to pack my bags and head to the bush capital to be a political reporter.
But nestled in the local shops in the sleepy suburb of Narrabundah lies a food experience which rivals some of the big-hitting restaurants in the major cities.
XO's ethos is a modern take on south-east Asian flavours. Being named after the staple sauce may have been a clue, however my guest and I left impressed by the complexity and thought packed into each one of the dishes in the $88pp set menu.
Our booking was for 8.30pm and getting to the table was a tad slow. We later found out the restaurant was short staffed due to a number of workers isolating because of COVID, a common occurrence across the hospitality industry right now, adding extra stress to venues already trying to recuperate from lockdowns.
Taking this into consideration, I could not have faulted the service at XO. The staff were accommodating and made time to explain each dish as the courses came out, despite having to move quickly on to the next table.
For the first course, two petite beef morsels known as the bo la lot were brought to the table. A take on the classic French beef tartare, the bite-size piece of sirloin rested on a betel leaf with a hint of mam nem, which is a Vietnamese anchovy sauce. The starter had a zing but like most times with tartare a dainty portion is never enough.
The next dish was a real standout. The mapo tofu dumpling with a fermented chilli sauce rocked. Inside the silken dumpling skin lay a perfect ratio of pork and tofu and, with the chilli sauce and hints of Sichuan pepper lathered on top, it was balanced perfectly.
I was told the restaurant had to tone down the heat on the third dish. But I say crank up the spice. The bonito sashimi was my favourite dish of the night. It was my kind of food. Crisp, clean and paying tribute to good produce with a chef who knows how to bring out the best qualities in the fish. The fish was dressed with seasonal stone fruits which were a sweet reprieve from the spicy jaew som sauce.
The drinks list here is extensive. We went with a glass of Swan Valley Tamala vermentino before moving onto a Nevermind tempranillo for the heavier dishes.
Next on the menu was the lai yau tofu. Tofu done any way is usually wasted on me. It's not the first thing I gravitate to on a menu, the texture is the main reason I try to avoid it.
But I could appreciate the technicality of the dish and my "part-time" vegetarian guest seemed to shovel it down with no worries. The tofu medallions were presented with a kelp butter sauce and a fluffy egg floss. The sauce was great but needed a little bit of an extra ka-pow. Maybe a hint of something umami, like some black garlic, fungus or truffle?
Shortly after, a plate of "Asian bolognese" was brought out. The dish was a plate of udon noodles with a XO sauce chicken ragout and accompanied with a 63 degree egg, which the wait staff tossed through at the table.
The word "bolognese" does not wow me, triggering memories of school camp where you were served meat in a watery tomato sauce with chunks of half-cooked carrot. This rendition was tasty but, for me, it just didn't fit the rest of the meal. I wanted the noodles in a bowl on the couch while watching a movie. Not really in the middle of the delicately balanced flavours of a set menu.
The next three plates were standouts. On centre stage was a beautifully poached barramundi fillet accompanied by some fluffy steamed rice and green beans coated in a spicy belacan sauce.
The fish rested in a sweet broth composed of kombu, soy, cherry tomatoes and coriander. A hint of ginger could also be tasted through the dish. The belacan beans were hearty and had the characteristically prawny zing of a tasty Malaysian sauce.
The dish was comforting, well balanced and the fish was "melt in your mouth" good. So good I had to order a whiskey.
When it comes to my desserts I usually gravitate to more European styles. But the Chengdu snow could only be summed up as a firecracker.
A white chilli chocolate mousse topped with a Sichuan pepper soil, goma (sesame seeds) and mandarin. It was peppery and sweet at the same time. Very inventive and seriously entertained the taste buds. Only critique: it may have needed more mousse to soil ratio.
The night at XO was a treat and showed a big-city slicker that Canberra is more than a political bubble consisting of a beer after a sitting week at The Kingo.
Address: 16 Iluka Street, Narrabundah
Phone: 6295 9696
Hours: Lunch 12-2pm (Tuesday to Friday), Dinner 6-10pm (Monday to Saturday)
Owners: Greg Lally, Kent Nhan, AK Ramakrishna
Chef: AK Ramakrishna
Noise: There is a buzz but conversations can be heard.
Outdoor dining: Available
Dietary: On request.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.