Whether you know your whisky from your whiskey or you’ve never sampled the stuff, there’s…
An article in The Canberra Times Food & Wine section a couple of weeks ago tipped me off to the soon-to-be opened eightysix in Braddon and their promise to aim for “simple execution of very, very good food” had me reaching for my phone to book a table for Date Night. The voice on the end of the line asked me if we would like to sit up at the counter overlooking the kitchen. Yes, please.
I’m not going to tell you that this was one of the best meals I have ever had in Canberra because then you will all want to go and I’ll never be able to get another booking.
They opened for business on Thursday this week, and we had a booking for Friday night. We were met at the door by Sean Royle (who owns the restaurant together with chef Gus Armstrong) who ushered us through the expertly fitted-out and not too crowded space to a couple of bar stools half way down the counter. He took my coat and hung it on a little hook under the bench we were sitting at – nice touch – and instructed the crew in the kitchen to put on a good show.
It’s a long time since I was a waitress at the Hyatt Hotel in Canberra, but I clearly remember getting in trouble with the manager in the Promenade Cafe for standing near the ‘pass’, just watching the chefs plating up the food. I wanted to be on that side of the kitchen, where things were happening and stuff was being made. My manager wanted me back out in the restaurant, taking orders.
Sitting up at the bench and overlooking the kitchen, being swept away by the aroma of a whole shoulder of lamb as you’re enjoying your chocolate terrine might not be to everyone’s taste (and there’s a whole restaurant of tables for you to choose from if you prefer). I could happily sit there all day, breathing it in and watching the chefs at work. And in this kitchen they really are achieving simple execution.
The menu is written on a blackboard along one wall (as the night wore on, Sean drew a line through the items that had sold out). Each dish is meant to be shared and the idea is to select a few things that you fancy and wait for them to come out of the kitchen one after the other and in no particular order. We chose the bream ceviche, the charcoal chicken (above) and a plate of mixed roast vegetables.
The fish was incredibly fresh and even with the perfectly balanced lemon and chilli flavours I could still taste the sea. It came with a salsa of crisp sweet corn kernels and coriander, with some toasted flatbread to scoop it up. If you have never tried fish this way, I highly recommend Gus’s version.
The whole chicken breast with the wing bone still in was cooked to tender, juicy perfection. Served with crunchy buttermilk coleslaw, the chicken had been covered with a sweet sauce that charred slightly under the grill. I didn’t ask what was in the sauce – star anise? cloves? brown sugar? – but it was delicious.
We watched the chefs prepare the ‘salmon in a bag with pickled vegetables’ half a dozen times before we decided we had to try it, too. The bag emerged, steaming from the sous vide and the salmon was seared skin-side down in a hot pan for a few seconds. The vegetables were lightly pickled and satisfyingly crunchy. And the salmon? I’ve never had salmon prepared like this before – the centre was pink but it fell apart the way fish does when it has been perfectly cooked. The flavour was amazing. I’m running out of adjectives.
For dessert we decided on the apple tartine with vanilla bean sorbet. The tart was sprinkled with fresh thyme leaves, which Gus freely admitted was Jamie Oliver’s inspired pairing. The caramelized pastry was just sweet enough to complement the slightly tart apple. It was divine. Kudos to Gus and Jamie.
And then I wanted to try the chocolate terrine with cherries. So we did.
We were there for about two and a half hours and between the two of us we had six ‘courses’ and a bottle of wine. I left feeling very satisfied, but not uncomfortably full. I could get used to this kind of dining. Order a few plates, enjoy a few pieces from each one, perhaps order something more if you like.
The meals were served on Bison plates or wooden boards, and these left the kitchen one by one – no need to coordinate entrees and mains, just send it out as it is cooked, allow the guests to savour each one for a little while before the next one arrives.
It’s an approach to eating that suits the patrons and the kitchen; I don’t remember the chefs at the Hyatt looking quite so relaxed. Don’t get me wrong – Gus and his team were working very hard, very quickly – but there wasn’t the same sense of frenetic urgency in this kitchen. I got the sense that this is exactly what Gus has been dreaming of doing his whole life – cooking great food with a talented team in a well-designed kitchen in a contemporary, cavernous space in an up-and-coming neighbourhood – and he was clearly, unashamedly enjoying himself. It was a good show.