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Review: Bookplate at the National Library of Australia

Michelle Brotohusodo

If you’re my age (mid-30s) or older, you probably remember the days when the food at tourist attractions and educational or national institutions wasn’t anything special. Sandwiches, pies, sausage rolls, pasties (and I’m not talking about the gourmet stuff you can get nowadays), etc., which you ate because you were there, that’s all there was, and you were hungry.

These days, this is no longer the norm. Not only is the food at a lot of these places on par with a nice standalone café or restaurant, but it may actually be the reason that you go to an attraction or institution. The new Bookplate at the National Library of Australia (NLA) is one such eatery.

As you may have heard, the café changed hands towards the end of last year. I’d heard from a friend who works at the NLA that the new Bookplate had a different vibe to the old one, but I had no idea what to expect when I got there.

The first thing that struck me was something I hadn’t noticed before, because I think the last time I was at Bookplate was at night (during Enlighten)—the stunning stained glass windows. If you haven’t seen them, they are just beautiful.

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I did notice, however, that the café had a bit more of a restaurant feel to it than previously. The new owner, Tracy Keeley, confirmed that this was what they were aiming for; a proper full menu rather than blackboard options.

And what a great menu it is.

Now, because I eat most things, I always have a lot of options. In contrast, the friend I was lunching with is pescetarian, so is often limited to ordering the token vegetarian or seafood dish. But not this time.

She was thrilled to see a wide range of vegetarian options (and some seafood ones), and to experience the unusual conundrum of what to choose.

We started with drinks. My friend ordered the Gorilla smoothie (kiwi, kale, pineapple and banana), and I went for the Watermint juice (watermelon, mint, and lime). When these were brought out, we couldn’t help ooh-ing and aah-ing a bit; they looked so pretty! And we loved the straws.

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But even if a drink looks pretty, it’s the taste that’s the main thing so we sipped and assessed.

My Watermint juice was lovely and refreshing, the perfect drink to have on a hot day. My friend loved her Gorilla smoothie. While it had banana in it, she said it was more for texture rather than flavour and the banana taste wasn’t too strong, which she was very pleased about. She even went so far as to say that it was one of the best smoothies she’s ever had, and she’s had a lot. Plus, its name was gorilla, what more could you want?

As for food, we began with the dips meze platter (Turkish bread and three dips made in-house—pumpkin hummus, Moroccan eggplant, and capsicum, walnut and pomegranate). The dips were just lovely. The eggplant one was nice and chunky, the pumpkin hummus was a delicious twist on an old favourite and the capsicum, walnut, and pomegranate one had a great texture and combination of flavours. The serving sizes were also pretty generous and so we ended up asking for more bread, which was served warm, firm on the outside but lovely and soft in the middle, and drizzled with olive oil. When I took my photo I cut out most of the bread, and I reflected that I’d actually done the bread an injustice by doing so, it was just so nice.

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For our mains, my friend ordered the baked mushrooms and grilled haloumi on sourdough, which she thoroughly enjoyed. I was very amused by her description of the haloumi as being appropriately squeaky. She said while squeaky wasn’t a word that should normally be used to describe food, haloumi pulls it off. While I didn’t try her meal, it looked wonderful and hearty, and I mentally added it to my list of things to order next time.

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I ordered the crispy pancetta gnocchi with sage, brown butter and shaved parmesan. This was amazing. It smelt and looked divine, and tasted even better. The pancetta was crispy and flavourful, the gnocchi was just the right texture, and the sage, brown butter, and parmesan just set it all off. My friend is an excellent cook and she said just from the appearance she could tell it was properly burnt butter. To be honest, my mouth is watering just thinking about this dish now, it was that good.

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Sadly, we were too full for dessert (the extra serving of bread was a rookie error we should have known not to make), but what was on offer looked wonderful, particularly the chocolate, date, and hazelnut torte.

Tracy told us that the menu will be changing regularly, and that breakfast would also be offered until 11am every day. That particular piece of information I filed away as I was very keen to try the cassoulet I’d seen on the menu. She also said that they were planning to do a refurbishment of the space, maybe a bit of a library den feel in keeping with its location in the NLA, and would be moving from counter service to table service. In addition, Bookplate has a lovely outdoor area, which Tracy said they had also big plans for.

I’m excited to see what Tracy and her team have in store for the new look of Bookplate (expected to be completed by June), but until then, I will happily go back for the amazing food. And maybe a side trip to the NLA.

The author and her friend dined courtesy of Bookplate. The author will definitely be going back to try the breakfast cassoulet!

The essentials
The place: Bookplate at the National Library of Australia
Where: Parkes Place, Canberra
When: Monday to Thursday 7.30am-5pm, Friday to Saturday 7.30am-4pm, Sunday 9am-4pm
Food: Modern Australian, including lots of vegetarian and gluten-free options
Drinks: Tea, coffee, juices, smoothies
Contact: Call (02) 6262 1154, visit the website find them on Facebook.

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Michelle Brotohusodo

Michelle moved to Canberra vowing to stay for two years, tops. 10 years later, she’s a bona fide Canberra convert. When she’s not working in her day job as a public servant, she’s enjoying Canberra’s culinary delights or finding fun things to do/see in and around town. More about the Author

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