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The now defunct Artespresso of Kingston, when in the safe and experienced hands of Miriana Cavic, was my favourite restaurant for many years. It was the Friday night standard of my now-husband and I in the first few years of our relationship (once we had progressed from boozy nights on the town to more civilised dinners); it was where I had breakfast with my bridesmaids on the morning of our wedding; and the place where we and our friends celebrated many milestones.
Then, it changed hands, and it kinda lost its way. We gave the ‘new’ Arte a few chances, but sadly turned our backs on it after one less-than-memorable meal where we were informed that our soggy-lidded crème brulee ‘was meant to be served like that’. Yeah, sorry, you can ‘interpret’ dishes however you please, but a crème brûlée ain’t a brûlée without that trademark ‘crack’ of toffee. It wasn’t all that long before the doors closed and its owners went their separate ways.
So, when work began on the old Arte site, I watched with interest. Details soon crept out of a “European-style” wine bar and eatery being set up by Danny Tosolini, named simply, European.
Doors opened last week, and I managed to resist the urge to check it out until Day 4, when I treated myself to lunch. And then I went back on Day 6, family in tow, for breakfast. And then returned last night (Day 10) to check out its dinner options. All in the name of research, of course.
The verdict? In a year that has seen some pretty incredible new entries to the Canberra restaurant scene, this place is a contender.
First, the fitout. The interior is unrecognisable from its previous incarnation…an open kitchen, moody dark walls, raw timbers, amazing bifold windows that open up an already airy space, an intimate wine bar area, and generous outdoor eating. It’s gorgeous and welcoming.
But, you know, at the end of the day, looks have to be backed up with a good personality…or in a restaurant’s case, good food. And I’m pleased to say, European isn’t just a pretty face.
My first visit is bang on 12 noon on a Friday. The restaurant is sparsely occupied, and I’m greeted warmly and shown to a table. The service is friendly, perhaps a tad clumsy in the waiter’s tendency to ‘hover’, but it’s better than the alternative of being ignored. They’re new, finding their feet, and they’re doing a pretty good job.
The menu is a melange of classic European influences – dishes from France, Spain and Italy feature large. I choose Veal Tonnato ($22) – the name anglicised from its ‘real’ title of Vitello Tonnato, but I guess it saves the waitstaff having to explain – and it’s bloody amazing. Tender, rare slices of poached veal curl around cubes of confit tuna and tuna mayonnaise. Silvery anchovies add a wonderful saltiness and speak to the restaurant’s commitment to freshness. It’s a winner, but it’s just one dish..and one course isn’t the basis of a review.
So, clearly the responsible thing to do is to eat more. So, Mr HerCanberra and I return with the kidlets in tow for Sunday breakky. Between the four of us, we knock off Eggs Benedict with Ham; Six minute boiled eggs and brioche soldiers; Rice pudding with fresh berries and berry consommé; and Croque Monsieur (it may look like a toasted sandwich, but let me assure you, you won’t find one of these babies coming out of a Breville jaffle maker!)
All four meals receive rave reviews and are polished off with much gusto. Mr HerCanberra – somewhat of an Eggs Benny connoisseur – reckons he’s found a new inclusion for his top five around town. And, at under $65 for four meals, including coffee, tea and babycinos, it’s damn good value.
But, there was still a final test. Dinner. Is it any wonder I have put on four kilos in the last six months…this food reviewing gig is murder on the butt!
We go as part of a group and are those people. The ones that make a reservation for seven people and then call two minutes before and ask the restaurant if they can possible sneak two more in. To European’s credit, they are gracious and say it’s ‘no problem’. It’s only when we arrive to find the restaurant pretty much full, that we realise how accommodating they are.
We’re seated at a large raw timber table, and it’s a bit squishy, but that’s our doing, not theirs. The menus come in the form of brown paper ‘placemats’ printed with a range of small plates to share, large individual dishes, and larger dishes, designed for the whole table to share (minimum of three people). Then there are some tasty looking salads and a short list of sweets.
It’s noisy (when I spoke with owner, Danny, last week he said he feared all the hard surfaces could get a bit loud when the space was full and had plans to put in some noise softening devices if that was the case) so we can’t be bothered to try and facilitate a group discussion about what to eat, as the menu is designed to be shared. So we just tell our waitress to bring us food…my favourite way to order!
It turns out we have two vegetarians among us, and the waitress is upfront when she says ‘as a vegetarian myself, we don’t have a lot of options – but what we DO, we do really well.”
It takes a little while for the first entree, Cured Salmon, pomme fondant, tartare ($18) to come out, but we’re distracted by the wine list in the meantime. A lovely Italian Soave for the white drinkers, and a big local Clonakilla for the red fans. The first dish is a hit – beautiful, delicate fish with lots of contrasting textures and a piquant, creamy tartare sauce. It’s followed soon after by the Veal Tonnato, which I’ve already sung the praises of.
The vegetarians on our table are pretty hungry (it’s 8:30pm) and we ask after their food several times. When it arrives, it’s lovely. The Tomato Tart, soft mozzarella, basil, smoked tomato puree ($16) is described as ‘fresh and zesty’, while the Spiced mushrooms with cumin yoghurt ($14) are juicy and substantial.
But for the carnivores, the showstopper is still to come. The Seven hour braised Lamb shoulder ($30 pp) is brought to the table on boards, and served with sides of potato ‘mash’ (I’d call it more of a ‘smash’), mushy peas, and pan juices. The meat is beautifully cooked, falling apart at the mere touch of a fork – but for a humid, warm Spring night, it’s heavy. I would have loved to have seen some lighter accompaniments, like some fresh lemon and a spring salad, to cut through the richness.
Our tummies full, we can’t even bear to look at the sweets and cheeses. Next time, perhaps?
The verdict? European is impressive. There are some elements that aren’t quite perfect – it is quite rowdy when packed, but it’s the sound of people enjoying a good night out, and it’s not so loud that you can’t still chat with your table. The kitchen was obviously under some pressure last night, with a full house, and there were some wait times that stretched on a little too long. But the team is still in their first two weeks of operation, and it’s sure to be something that’s refined as they settle into their roles.
But the food overshadows it all. It’s really flavoursome, fresh and honest – and reasonably priced. Plus, for me, there’s a wonderful sense of coming home…we’ve come full circle, discovering a great new place to eat on the site of an old sentimental favourite.
And I can’t help but be excited that, with the regreening of Green Square happening next year (great news for its reliably good cafes); Penny University set to open its doors in mere days; and Soc Kochinos’ new venture on the grounds of the old Holy Grail/First Floor surely not that far away; that maybe, just maybe, the Kingston that I knew 10 years ago – the one that was vibrant, and full of people every day and night – is on its way back.
Where: 31 Giles Street, Kingston
When: Lunch 12 noon to 2pm, Tuesday to Friday; Dinner from 6pm, Tuesday to Saturday; Breakfast/Brunch 8am to 2:30pm weekends.
Phone: 02 6295 1515
The author dined at her own expense (all three times)…