Creamy millet porridge infused with cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla, topped with chopped pistachios and pure…
Even fine-dining stalwarts are succumbing to Canberra’s street food scene.
John Leverink has forged a career creating dishes befitting all the trappings of fine-dining – starched tablecloths, sparkling crystal and gleaming silverware. Yet when Pod Food and The Boat House’s owner fires up his gas burners at The Front on Sunday (scroll to the bottom of this article for the details), he won’t care if people slurp his creations straight from the bowl.
In fact, that would be a sign that his pop-up, Ramen Daddy, was hitting exactly the right culinary notes.
“There is something exciting about serving street food – there is no hiding in the kitchen, or relying on the venue or garnishes,” he says. “Every element still has to be perfect but you’ve got two-and-a-half-minutes and customers queuing up in front of you. The adrenaline gets pumping!”
Street food is a big thing in Canberra, and HerCanberra has brought you many a story of the increasing number of Canberra businesses doing a thriving trade in quick, cheap but delicious food best eaten with your hands while chatting to a group of friends.
In fact, these days in Canberra, you’re more likely to stumble across a street food-inspired venture than a fine dining venue. To name just a few; Filipino eatery Lolo and Lola, Peruvian food truck Mr Papa, Indian food venture Tikka Stand, Braddon’s The Mandalay Bus or collective events such as The Forage and The Commons, which attract massive crowds rain, hail or shine.
But some of our fine-dining stalwarts are falling in love with the idea too, and crossing over.
The brothers behind award-winning Sage Dining Rooms, Akiba and Kokomo’s, have been delighted by the length of the queues they attract for their Akiba bao buns and their Kokomo’s poke bowls at a number of street food events they attend.
Peter and Michael Harrington have orchestrated monumental fine-dining degustations at Sage but said the idea behind Akiba was to harness the street food vibe for a top-quality restaurant.
“We aim to create super tasty, fresh and vibrant dishes, but also food that is accessible and fast to get out. We turn the restaurant over three times every night so we have to keep the quality and speed up while we keep the prices down,” says Peter.
He believed street food appealed to the modern eater, who ate out a lot, loved to experience new tastes and “doesn’t want to sit and mull over a two-hour dinner”.
Of course, the fine-dining experience will never diminish when it comes to romantic nights, special occasions or slow meals to catch up with friends.
Peter also noted that street food events such as the Forage provided opportunities to make “some pretty solid profits when you have low overheads and masses of people seeing your stall and wanting to try your food.”
For John Leverink, the serious end of dining will always be his mainstay but there is plenty of fun in street food. He and Boathouse head chef Eddie Ming formulated Ramen Daddy together after jokingly debating the merits of ramen.
“My exposure to ramen had been fairly limited but we started serving it for staff meals and I made a few jokes with Eddie about setting up a ramen shop. One thing led to another and we set up a stall at the Forage.”
Two Forages and a Laneway Festival later and John and Eddie are firing up the burners for the Lyneham pop-up at The Front from 5 pm on Sunday.
“In a sense, we still use the fine-dining techniques and the eggs are sous vide, as is the pork, which we then charcoal grill for extra flavour. The stock is a really complex process, half French- inspired and half Japanese.”
In the end, John says the casual crowds who will head into The Front will eat something that could well be served up at The Boat House – but for half the price – given he doesn’t have to pay all the associated overheads of a fine-dining restaurant.
Personally, he loves the feedback loop.
“You get to talk to the customer then and there, and you see them as they eat the food and they will often tell you then and there how much they love it – or you can just watch them slurping something delicious by the side of the road.”
One particular Canberra success story is Zaab, a restaurant on Lonsdale Street in Braddon which has skipped all pretentions to traditional restaurant presentation and gone straight for the street food vibe with both its menu and décor.
Boasting corrugated iron ceilings and concrete floors, business partners Becky Khanthavongsa and Ricky Liau wanted to immerse diners in the fast, nostalgic, fresh and funky vibe of Thai and Laotian cuisine.
According to Ricky, “our original concept was always to embrace Asian street food culture and bring something different to Canberra.”
Becky said the narrow space and fit-out came close to emulating a street. And while they are competing with established fine-diners such as Italian & Sons and hatted rule-breakers such as eightysix, the niche is proving increasingly popular.
“I’d say this casual style of dining is going to be more and more the way we eat in Canberra – as it is in cities such as New York, Hong Kong and even Sydney.”
“You’ll find places such as ours concentrate on the whole experience and tend to have good drink offerings to go with the food. It is about food that is fresh, exciting and fast-paced, with great drinks to go with it, not about linen napkins and silver cutlery.”
“Street food is definitely the way people are heading.”
What: Ramen Daddy
Where: The Front, 1 Wattle Place, Lyneham
When: From 5pm on Sunday 2 December, until sold out
Eat: A bowl of Ramen and a Capital Brewing Co. beer for $20. They’ll also be serving up their cookie sandwiches with black sesame & dulce de leche ice cream.
Images by Tim Bean Photography