There are two types of restaurants in Canberra's city centre: ones worth driving around to find a park for and ones that are not. It's not a neat division between cheap and expensive which determines the category a restaurant falls into.
There is a hard-to-define quality that determines if a restaurant - whether flash, modest or in between - does enough to justify the Civic parking space gauntlet run.
Briscola, in the Melbourne Building, has another hurdle: there is no parking right out the front. One of this city's most pig-headed attitudes is the expectation to park out the front of anything. It's a fanciful desire to have country town convenience accessing big city amenity. (Whoever manages to kill this attitude will make an easier fist of planning system reform.)
What I'm saying is Briscola takes a little effort getting to. Not much, mind you. There's a tram stop just over a bit and buses really do pull up at the front. Catch a cab, enjoy an extra glass of wine - or three.
The reward for this modicum of effort - which, in any other city, would be barely worth mentioning - is a classically charming Italian restaurant which serves good and hearty good from a very well-appointed menu right in the middle of things.
A recently renovated dining room will leave no false impression that this could be anything other than an Italian restaurant: prints of glorious, old Campari advertisements, a shelf of Italian cookbooks in the back corner, a bar with shelves of glinting multi-coloured spirit bottles. And proper, old-fashioned, never-been-bettered No.18 Bentwood chairs.
One can tell a lot about a restaurant from the chairs they select. I think going for a design classic is generally a good indicator. If nothing else, it means one doesn't have to sit in a chair that looks wonderful on Instagram but is a terrible practical receptacle for one's behind. It also exudes quiet confidence: We don't need to reinvent the wheel, a Bentwood chair says, because we know a good thing when we see it. Why don't you be comfortable when you stop by to try it for yourself?
Thus, seated accordingly on an early weeknight, we begin with an antipasto board ($25) and three arancini balls ($19). The board is a generous serving that includes prosciutto and mortadella, salumi and giardiniera. There is always a great moment, dining out, when a dish ordered is exactly the dish imagined. Here was one of them.
The arancini balls, served on a tomato sauce, are properly excellent. Fried and crispy on the outside, they don't suffer that all too common oily fate. Three between two people is ample, but you might well wish to have the second for yourself rather than sharing.
The pollo gamberi ($44) is the rich and hearty main I tackle. Two thin layers of chicken breast, with a helping of prawns, served in a deluge of sauce alongside roasted vegetables and potatoes. A dish like this has the same confidence as the Bentwood chair: it doesn't need to look a certain way. The proof is in the eating, not fussy presentation. I am open to prawns but they need to convince me. Here they certainly did, a sparkling addition to a soul-enhancing course.
The linguine di mare ($36) is perhaps a slightly riskier choice. Another very generous serving, the pasta is a delight. But all that seafood - prawns, mussels, scallops - and all those kilometres between the sea and Canberra make this a harder dish to deliver spot on each time. The fundamentals were, however, rock solid.
By the time dessert rolls around, we ponder whether we overindulged at the entree stage of the evening. Oh probably. Would we still like to see a dessert menu? Oh, absolutely.
The pistachio creme brulee ($16) is magnificent. Served on a board with the creme brulee in a ramekin and properly delectable crostoli, this is the most sophisticated looking dish of the night. And it tastes accordingly.
The crostata al limone ($15) is a limoncello-infused lemon tart, served with cream on a drizzle of passionfruit coulis. Lemon and passionfruit is always a strong pairing, and I'm glad to have chosen something lighter for dessert. Anything involving chocolate or coffee would have been tough at the end of so rich a meal.
Briscola is inviting and comfortable, if a tad over lit. The place isn't pretentious; it's confident and self assured. The menu is broad, the place serves pizza if that's more your speed, and kids eat for $17. A group of four or more grown ups have the option of a $90-a-head, 10-course set menu. Here is a restaurant which can rise to the occasion: from a flashier night out, to a mid-week pizza night, to a pre-theatre meal.
Take the time to find a park. Or better yet, take the tram. I'm sure that's what they'd do if this were Italy.
Address: 60 Alinga St, City
Phone: 6248 5444
Hours: Lunch, Tuesday to Sunday, from noon to 2pm; Dinner, Monday to Sunday, from 5.30pm.
Chef: Nickolaus Magro Ocaranza
Noise: No trouble
Dietary: Plenty of options
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