Abe Lincoln once said if you gave him six hours to chop down a tree, he would spend the first four hours sharpening the axe. At Pilot, at 6pm on a Friday Autumn evening, we find that the strategy, research and preparation behind delivering a two-hour dinner demonstrates the axe-sharpening skills of a team of very fine craftsmen and women.
But first a confession - this is my debut review. I have, however, done my own preparation by reviewing a thousand restaurants in my head over the past few decades and I have always believed a reviewer should be describing what the restaurant is attempting to achieve - and scoring a venue in relation to the rest of the market. So we wander into Pilot and I'm kind of secretly hoping I don't feel the pressure to present my top score in my first appearance at the crease. But that pressure builds.
I heard a rumour Sydney's hottest chef Josh Niland was here last week. He doesn't get out of bed for just anyone and I feel a sense of pride that he has gotten of bed to eat at Pilot. Because it's as good as, or better than, a large slice of the top end on offer in Sydney. After booking on the website a few weeks back, we know there is a contract already in place when we walk in the door. The menu is set at seven courses, $130 per head and they know what we can't or don't wish to eat. Everyone eats the same base menu, the wine list is prolifically all Australian and you can match wines for $90, non-alcoholic drinks for $50 or you can BYO a special bottle, with a corkage fee of $60. The arrangement is crystal clear.
Pre-dinner drinks of a passionfruit basil spritz and Hop Nation Hazy NEIPA are paired with hand-eaten snacks you would expect to find in San Sebastian. A pair of plump half-shell mussels with saffron and roasted capsicum, a delicate bowl of a "carrot swirl" glazed in coffee with zaatar, the "money bags" exploding with Balmain bug meat and a couple of warm "pizza pockets" stuffed with romesco and wrapped in a linen napkin. But let me tell you about the best carrot I have ever eaten. It was a spiral of beautifully textured orange deliciousness which has been caramelised on its edges with coffee and butter, and some little Tinkerbell-like fairy has then come along and sprinkled it with zaatar, made with sesame seeds, sumac and dried basil. Perhaps I have been cooking carrots incorrectly for some time now, but the creativity behind this dish is remarkable.
We get ready to go again and I can see that the fully masked floor team have been very well briefed and drilled, serving with confidence, as they quietly buzz around the dining room, exchanging empty plates with full ones. A warm hand towel and the Asian-influenced dishes are about the hit the table, just as Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd floats through the room a little earlier than expected.
A finely crafted chicken meatball with pickled leeks, shaved daikon and sourdough broth is wonderfully comforting and we start to get numb with the lightly seared bonito which is layered with crunchy tempura enoki mushrooms.
We wash these down with a Les and Sez Rebelle orange chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills ($16) which is very hard to find as they only made three small barrels of it. It's savoury and funky with a hint of pot pourri and is indicative of the care and research that has taken place to put together a remarkably detailed and high-quality wine list, including a page dedicated to cult winemaker Hans Peter Schmidt from Mythopia in Switzerland. This list has cost Pilot significant time and money to produce.
Next course is a lean cutlet of lamb, perfectly crimson with a slightly smoky character which is punctuated with a fermented peach hot sauce which chef Malcolm Hanslow makes once a year. A generous and delicious portion of roasted pumpkin pops from the plate with marigold blooms, and an Ottolenghi-esque bowl of pearl barley salad with pomegranate and dates rounds out the main course.
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The Mac Forbes Bordeaux blend ($26), poured from a magnum, adds a touch of theatre and I imagine they wouldn't sell too many whole bottles of it either given the high percentage of couples.
But what exactly is Pilot trying to achieve? Well, they don't just cook food. They research it, source it, taste it, adapt it, refine it, produce it and then repeat it. And that's just on one evening.
I can see we are right on time at 7.33pm when the first savoury dessert, an Indian-inspired sphere of paneer cheese with quince syrup lands to the tune of I shot the sheriff by Eric Clapton. A complex assembly of white chocolate and coconut mousse, mandarin sorbet, buckwheat, lemon curd and olive oil brings a sweeter note to the table and we are all wrapped up with a couple of delectable pecan pies and at 7.50 we are out the door, departing with great happiness. Just as the team at Pilot planned all along, as part of their very cunning Abe Lincoln-inspired strategy.
This is a restaurant that mixes it with the best in the country. It's not a cheap date night but the value is there. Canberra should be proud of what owners Dash Rumble and Ross McQuinn have attempted and are indeed achieving. First or last review ever (or maybe both), I suspect that this may just be my top scoring restaurant of the year.
Address: 1 Wakefield Gardens, Ainslie
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, from 6pm; Sunday long lunch, from noon
Owners: Dash Rumble and Ross McQuinn
Chef: Malcolm Hanslow
Noise: No issue
Dietary: Let the restaurant know at time of booking
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