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XO: Food from the heart

Beatrice Smith and Ashley St George

We were incredibly excited back in early June to learn that the vacant storefront (formerly The Artisan) at the Narrabundah shops was to be replaced with a restaurant.

Speaking to mysterious co-owner Greg back then, he seemed cagey about the details – what the restaurant was to be called, what the fit out would be like. Only the cuisine was discussed in detail – South East Asian influences, home style, fresh local produce and an attention on sharing plates.

Stepping into XO a few months later, it’s clear that Greg and his team haven’t lost their way from concept to reality – the food is still centre stage – but what a backdrop.

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XO is hard to miss, with Dai Cameron’s dynamic black and white mural outside (bigger than the shopfront itself) commanding your attention. The bi-fold windows at the front are covered with a retractable mesh grille and a light box installation waits behind the glass front door. It’s almost impossible to see the interior of the restaurant from the street.

Regular patrons of former tenant, The Artisan, will do a double take as they walk in – the space seems to have doubled in size – with The Artisan’s palette of charcoal, dark wood and aubergine being replaced by matte poured concrete, whitewashed brick walls and blonde wood. The banquette on the right hand side is now caramel leather, the tables are marble edged with brass.

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Mid century cane dining chairs and hidden, soft lights add a relaxed, warm feel to the interior. The whole effect is minimalist with an emphasis on the small details like bespoke chopsticks and leather topped stools by Canberra designer Tom Skeehan and thick white business cards embossed with gold.

Wines (Clonakilla, Eden Road, Nick O’Leary and more) are displayed horizontally along the left wall, adding to the feel that the food and drink are the art of this restaurant – there’s no need for other embellishment.

Behind the concrete bar, an uncrowded liquor shelf showcases a curated selection of sake and spirits. There are three beers on tap, one of which is Pact Beer by local brewer Kevin Hingston.

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One of the restaurant’s most unique features is a large table that seems to be an extension of the bar. Its aim is to be a shared space, where smaller groups can connect and banter.

Kent Nhan, the front of house partner, says that it was always about making XO uniquely Canberran when the team first looked at the venue.

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“We had a pretty concise vision about how we wanted the space to look – aesthetically,” says Greg. “We wanted something materially different to The Artisan. We’ve always loved the idea of whitewashed raw brick – very earthy. So we engaged Aaron Copeland from Capezio Copeland, gave him a pretty solid design brief and he helped us put our ideas into action.”

“I never imaged we would do anything like this,” says Kent. “The scope crept beyond our wildest imaginations,” adds Greg.

“You want a reflection of yourselves in the fit out, not only in the food but the décor too. We didn’t want anything outrageous; we’re all pretty modest people so we wanted to keep it simple. Our main pride is in the food.”

The XO crew

The XO team

Chef AK has trained in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore in an effort to get to the core of traditional Asian cooking. “In Southeast Asia the style of eating is very communal – you share,” he says. “The core [of the XO menu] is Southeast Asian, especially Vietnamese and Malaysian, but you find in many countries that their dishes are similar to others with one distinctive element that sets them apart.”

“They’re really authentic flavours but we modernised the cooking with our techniques. There’s also an emphasis on fresh, quality produce of the highest grade.”

“Apart from the local produce and using the modernised techniques, it would only be right to say that the idea of the food has come from our mother’s backgrounds,” says Kent.

Kent’s family runs the Griffith Vietnamese Restaurant, a Canberra touchstone of family food and service so it’s not hard to see where he’s gained his appreciation of preserving heritage through food.

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“To be able to pay homage to our mother’s cooking and most importantly the food we grew up eating, to be able to modernise it and share our vision of those dishes, it’s unreal,” he says.

“Nobody [in Canberra] cooks what we grew up eating or how we grew up eating,” adds AK.

Luckily, you’re able to share in these childhood culinary memories when XO opens next Thursday 22 October.

the essentials
What: XO
Where: Narrabundah Shops. 16 Iluka Street, Narrabundah.
When:Open for lunch 12 til 3pm Tuesday to Saturday, and dinner 6pm to 11pm, Monday to Saturday
Web: xo-restaurant.com.au

All images by Ashley St George

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Beatrice Smith

Bea loves that her job as HerCanberra’s Editorial Coordinator involves eating, drinking and interviewing people - sometimes simultaneously. The master of HerCanberra’s publishing schedule, she’s usually found hunched over a huge calendar muttering to herself about content balance. Otherwise you’ll find her at the movies, ordering a cheese board or ordering a cheese board at the movies. More about the Author

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