Back in the very late 70s when Kool and the Gang was top of the charts, the Civic Pool top tower was a rite of passage. Teenagers would start with the springboard, then second tower, and then only the very bravest ones did top tower. I get a slight shiver, as that's what greets us at Bar Rochford, at the top turn of the stairs on the coldest night of the year. It could be the cold, but it could also be the anticipation that we are about to try something at great heights.
We slip into a Friday night post-work buzz of couples sipping their martinis and negronis, Freddie Hubbard spinning on vinyl and the glorious crackle of a white-tiled open fire. There is something both wonderfully vintage but still oh-so-current about this joint.
There's a "rubiconic" restaurateur slurping what looks like some lovely barolo in the corner with his family, and we kick off with a Bodriggy Italian pilsner ($7) and a dry and flinty little German riesling from Kuhling-Gillot ($16).
Our waiter has worked here for five years and we immediately entrust in his casual confidence to pick out a few "snacks" for us. This is, after all, a bar, and in bars, they serve bar snacks. The lobster and celery vol au vents ($16) springboard onto the table like mini UFOs and explode in the mouth with succulent lobster and a tangy Russian dressing.
The signature anchovy toast ($16) is beautifully laden with a chunky gribiche composed of silky textured soft boiled egg, zingy mustard and salty (in a good way) little capers. This is what I call a top-tower snack. Apparently this one left the menu for a few days a few years ago, and the patrons rebelled.
The second waiter delivers our next two snacks. He has worked here for nine months but applied to work here for four years before he landed the job. It's a lovely story and you couldn't make that up. It seems like this is one of the top places in town for young and upcoming hospitality talent.
Tuna carpaccio ($24) arrives floating on bottarga cream and the kicker comes from a very spicy but highly addictive togarashi spice. Not unlike Diana Ross and the Supremes, they sound good on their own, but together they make music.
The Pulp Fiction sound track is now pumping and there is no doubt that this food tastes even better to Jungle Boogie. The last snack is stracciatella with piccalilli, noos de jambon and dijon ($24). The elements are all high quality but it's more of a B side dish.
For main course we choose Murray cod with escabeche, smoked tomato and lemon ($36) and Berkshire pork chop with sweet potato ssamjang and gochujang caramel ($36) served with a side of whole cos lettuce with green sauce, dashi and fines herbes ($16). Chef is using excellent French techniques, with quality Asian ingredients in the last two dishes.
I have a few mates who fish for Murray cod and now I know why; fleshy and milky, it has lovely supple texture and mild flavour. This dish is very well cooked, the subtle smoke in the tomatoes is perfect foil to the fish and there is also a little Butch Coolidge-like punch in the escabache. Pork is slightly on the dry side tonight and the caramel flavours seem to take over, but the accompanying sweet potato ssamjang is all Saturday Night Fever, Korean style. The cos is rehydratingly delicious, and I wonder why we don't serve it this way at home.
It's simple and fresh, and would probably even have the Heart Foundation ticks if we weren't washing it back with a Two Tonne pinot ($17) from Tassie and tonight's wine special, a Richard Rottiers beaujolais ($18). Recommended by our "five year" waiter, the beaujolais is gamay based, light and perfumed with ripe cherry and raspberry notes. It probably would have been great with the duck dish that we didn't order; here's hoping that the patrons rebel again and we can go back to the future next time.
For dessert we take a beautiful slab of aged comte from the French Alps ($12) and a serve of apple terrine with chamomile, almond, and parsnip icecream ($16). This is warm and punctuated with those lovely Autumn cinnamon and spice-like flavours. Desserts around town are getting more savoury but this one has gone the other way. It's certainly not Viennetta-style sweet but I have no doubt that it would be popular with those who are over these fandangled, modern day, savoury desserts made from breakfast cereal and dried prunes.
Bar Rochford is a beautiful space for a drink or three, but it's also a high quality restaurant where you can feel at home in a Pierre Cardin suit and tie, or in your jeans and Samuel L Jackson t-shirt. Like climbing to the top tower (or for some people the middle one), it's an adventure. With the neon cranes glowing in the distance, we slip out into the freshness of 4C at 10.42pm. It's cold. But it is more so the contrast to the wonderful warmth of Bar Rochford that makes such an impact. Warmth that only a modern day classic can deliver.
Address: 65 London Circuit, Canberra
Phone: 6230 6222
Owner: Nick Smith, Ryan Smith and Josh Lundy
Chefs: Josh Lundy and Belinda Barrett
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 5pm til late
Noise: Moreso in the bar, restaurant area is fine
Dietary: Plenty of vegetarian and gluten free
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