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Review: Secret Garden Manuka

Beatrice Smith

Manuka has always been the place where food and fashion meet—the Melbourne of Canberra, if you will.

Recently, however, the inner south haven has become even more like the Victorian capital with a selection of gems popping up just out of sight.

Tucked away in the climate-controlled oasis of Manuka Village, Secret Garden Manuka is one of those hidden treasures (as the name might suggest) tucked away in one of the suburb’s ‘laneways’. But while it might be out of sight, is certainly isn’t out of mind.

Since opening in late 2017, Secret Garden has become the favourite of parent’s groups, foodies and those wanting a quiet catch up due to its unique location. Under an expansive skylight, lush plants hang above sustainably-designed boyandgirlco tables, and while it might not have a brick and mortar shell, every effort has been made to create a feeling of seclusion.

This is most apparent in the planter boxes that have been shaped around the café’s boundary, making the space intimate without cutting out the roomy feel of the atrium. When the HerCanberra team popped in for brunch last week, the mothers among us commented on the ‘safe’ nature of the space with the planters creating a natural barrier for kids (and not a busy road in sight).

But what might be the most intriguing aspect of Secret Garden its co-owner. Jack Zhong, best known for helming the award-winning fine dining Asian restaurant Wild Duck on the Kingston Foreshore, might not be who you’d expect to find behind delicately-assembled granola and artfully-stacked smoked salmon rosti, but for him, the idea of opening a café was a natural one.

“I always knew I wanted to open up a café–I know it’s a big challenge and a tough market but I always wanted to try and create something different. I always like a challenge!”

For Jack, that “something different” has meant rethinking café food and how he could bring his signature Wild Duck attention to detail and depth of flavour to everyday brunch and lunch dishes.

“Our current menu has been very popular,” he explains. “We try to make sure there’s a nice balance of flavour in there with ingredients like smoked salmon, field mushrooms, maple syrup bacon, avocado salsa—a healthy style of food.”

However, Jack explains that while presentation is key for Secret Garden and he wants their dishes to stand out, he’s cautious not to overcomplicate the menu.

“I always find there are two types of customers,” he explains. “The first is a customer who wants something simple, healthy and they know exactly what they want. But some people, especially young people—they find something exciting and beautiful through social media and they come specifically for that dish.”

Jack hopes that the all-day menu of Secret Garden will satisfy both of these customers and with dishes ranging from a tasty smoked salmon rosti stack to pork bao, we’d have to agree.

“We’ve had great feedback so far,” Jack says. “The dishes have lots of little elements to balance the flavours. We’re also trying to bring in a few Asian elements such as the eggplant burger.”

The HerCanberra team tried said burger and we can attest to how delicious it was. Jack explains it’s all about a layering of flavours.

“The eggplant is marinated in a Yu Xiang capsicum sauce with a Chinese chilli vinegar and a Sichuan chilli paste. It’s then panko crumbed and paired with a cucumber pickle, a crispy fried wonton wrap for texture and sour cream.

“Yu Xiang Eggplant is a very popular Chinese dish and we wanted to bring this combination to Secret Garden.”

Our next dish, the Moroccan Chicken Salad, was also a surprise favourite, with the highlight being the moist chicken pieces alongside almost-caramelised pieces of pumpkin, which Jack explains is offset by a thin base of creamy hummus.

“There’s a balance between the rocket and the hummus, the couscous, honeyed pumpkin, feta and the chicken,” he explains.

“Often, in a busy café, not a lot of attention is paid to presentation—but our dishes are created by a chef who has been trained in fine dining. That’s the secret.”

For me, the House-made Granola was a particular stand out, with a plethora of fresh fruit carefully placed upon a bed of homemade coconut granola alongside tart-yet-sweet cinnamon yogurt. As someone who routinely orders this kind of dish for breakfast, it was refreshing to see the amount of fruit on the plate and that there was more than enough yogurt vs. granola (a very important metric for granola lovers!).

Another dish that quickly disappeared between the four of us was the Rosti Stack – a layered tower of crisp potato rosti, salsa fresca, avocado salsa and a very generous helping of smoked salmon. The textures were divine thanks to a delicate arrangement of sweet braised eschallots and dressed roquette around the edge of the plate.

After we’d collectively polished off our brunch (we all tried a little of each other’s dish—for fair review purposes, naturally) Jack brought us out a little treat – Pork Bao. This was a special request on behalf of our bao-obsessed editorial team and was the perfect savoury note to end brunch on – a perfectly steamed little package of lush pork cut by a fresh sprig of coriander.

If you’re a fellow granola lover, are looking for an air-conditioned haven or just love bao as much as us, this is a hidden gem that punches well above its weight. One worth searching for.

the essentials

What: Secret Garden Manuka
Where: Inside Manuka Village, 18-26 Furneaux Street, Manuka
When: Open weekdays from 7 am – 4 pm, Saturday from 8 am – 4 pm and Sunday from 8 am – 3 pm.
More information:

Photography: Tim Bean Photography

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Beatrice Smith

Bea loves that her job as HerCanberra’s Online Editor 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 or ordering a cheese board. More about the Author

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