A restaurant named after an eggplant, that doesn’t serve the eponymous on the menu. What gives – I ought to be incensed! Even The Fat Duck wouldn’t dare not put duck on its menu, right?
But then, when every table in sight is covered for the night, I knew that Canberra’s Aubergine restaurant is doing something right!
Date Last Visited: 31/10/2015
Address: 18 Barker St, Griffith ACT 2603
Recommended Dish(es): wagyu rib & black garlic, brown butter ice cream w/frozen verbena milk
With two chef’s hats under its belt, Aubergine plays in a very rare camp of “regional” restaurants in NSW to possess the double-toqued accolade. Of course, a healthy dose of scepticism goes a long way to keep expectations tempered – after all for me, a big part of my recent roadtrip down to Canberra is to savour the dining experience here. There’s got to be a reason why they’ve retained two hats for five years in a row, the only Canberra restaurant featured in the Financial Review’s top Australian restaurants, and Gourmet Traveller’s top 100. I’m here to discover that reason.
Aubergine’s cuisine is contemporary Australian, much like its contemporaries. It mostly operates on a locavore basis – sourcing locally wherever possible, and curiously, defers to what the supplier thinks is the best produce of the day. This means Aubergine’s menu changes on a daily basis, though that’s not a fact I can readily verify. Supposing it to be true, it makes for quite the imaginative kitchen – always having to think different, but within the Mod Aus food philosophy.
There is only one menu option – four courses a la carte for $90. Wines are of course, extra. I had anticipated I would be going for some red meats today, and so opted for a glass of 2014 ‘Les Grillons’ grenache. Hey, why not play a little while you’re here?
It’s once in a blue moon that bread & butter isn’t served at a Mod Aus restaurant, but today the moon shall stay regular – bread is dished up before anything else on the menu, a pleasingly ample slice. I lament the fact that it wasn’t served warm, and the fact that it tasted a little bit too mushy and ‘glutinous’ was a bit of a downer. I didn’t ask for seconds, though in retrospect even if the bread was excellent I wouldn’t have anyway – you’ll soon see why.
Up next are a series of snacks – potato & beetroot crisps dominate the photo above, and yes, they are very similar to the potato chips you’d imagine them to be. They’re crunchy, and a little lighter than the average packaged potato chip. The beetroot “dust” on top add an earthiness and a pop of colour, putting it right at home amongst these high-end snacks.
To the right of the crisps are dollops of applesauce, on top of which sits a chocolate caramel & blood pudding “spring roll” (my terminology). It’s a strange flavour combination – sweet, sticky chocolate caramel on the outside, saucy and umami blood pudding within. The applesauce, in a way, “cooled” this intense flavour medley down and it’s an effect I quite enjoyed. Overall, my favourite snack on the plate, but not one I would overindulge on – it is very heavy.
Petite biscuits of cheese & ginger, topped with sprigs of rosemary & daikon round up the final snack. I have no real idea what the cheese used is, but is it a crime to describe it as being very cheesy in flavour? Shoot me, but it’s delicious. Furthermore, the biscuit sports an incredibly friable texture, crumbs decomposing into fractals of crumbs on every chewing motion. Hints of herby rosemary cut through every now and then, though there’s never enough of the biscuit to need it anyway.
A solid triplet of starters before we’re on our way to the starter course.
Course #1 is not chosen by diners individually, instead being served to the whole table. For our dinner, it came in the form of yellowfin tuna ceviche w/chicken & artichoke salad. This is a surprisingly large portion for a pre-entree dish, a musing reinforced by the fact that it’s almost all protein – several generous pieces of cured tuna on top of a bed of what mostly seemed like chicken.
I have no complaints with that! Apart from the obvious umami focus of the chicken and tuna, the whole dish is topped off by prawn floss. This is like pairing dessert wine with dessert – perhaps a little OTT, but in this case not to the point where everything was too “MSG-like”.
Overall, it’s quite an enjoyable dish, meaty, chewy goodness which while messily plated, delivers on flavour. Umami to start is always a clever idea – it primes the palate and boy, got my mouth watering for the upcoming courses.
My friend’s choice of entree (course #2) is the grilled cuttlefish. This is paired with some umami butter and an assortment of greens and a parsley risotto. The most distinguished aspect of the dish is how chewy and bouncy the cuttlefish is. It’s a texture I really like, despite the fact that I find flavours never imbue into mollusks as well as they do in other seafood. Still, it was a tasty little bite I managed to try, and I think based on that small sample I wouldn’t mind ordering it as an entree for myself, should I ever find myself at Aubergine again.
However, while I do entertain this positive view of the cuttlefish dish, I must say my own choice of entree is itself no slouch:
A portion size that could nearly be considered a main, the wagyu rib is a dish to be reckoned with. Now you begin to understand why one slice of bread (even if it was good) is beginning to seem like enough. Scrumptiously tender meat, saucy, savoury flavours, and a solid crunchy bite from the astringent silverbeet, this is very well-cooked beef, enough said.
Well maybe I’ll say a bit more: there’s a second part of the beef that’s cooked in a different way – slow-cooked, shredded, and then cooked in beef fat. I love dishes that present the same ingredient in more than one way, so this is all boxes ticked. It’s my favourite savoury dish at Aubergine 😀
The main of choice for me and another friend was the quail ballotine w/jerusalem artichoke & hispi cabbage. Hispi cabbage is particularly interesting – I think of it as an engorged brussel sprout, with a bitter flavour to match. In this dish, I found the cabbage to be the best element on the plate. It’s bitter, it’s crunchy, dense, and yet full of mustard flavour. A veg well done.
But what about the rest of the dish? Well, that’s where things aren’t so great. The quail ballotine, meant to be tender and moist, was dry and thus uninteresting. The daikon is soft and chewy, but I never did like daikon too much, so that’s personal. As the protein, the supposed star of the show, didn’t make a strong showing, the entire dish can only be so good. As such, the veg is where it’s at.
Overall, even if the quail had been exceptionally cooked, it would have been a very heavy dish. Super saucy, super rich – even the cabbage, a vegetable, was made quite greasy and perhaps almost burdensome to eat.
At this point, the sun began to set, and Aubergine’s natural lighting is…a non-event. I did manage to snag a shot of my friend’s salt grass fed lamb rump before succumbing to near-darkness. I also managed to snag a bite, detecting strong notes of beetroot backed up by an unapologetically powerful hit of lamb. I would imagine that this would be a great dish for those inclined towards this particular meat.
Aubergine offers an optional course of up to three cheeses ($8ea, $16 for 3) of the day which, due to my gluttony, meant they all got put on my docket. In retrospect, this is a decision I actually regret, because Aubergine does not mess around with portions – these are full on, 40-50g blocks each, and yes – this is meant to be for one person. Talk about value…and the lack of stomach space.
My favourite by far is the Roquefort blue (on the right). Indeed, it’s actually the best blue cheese I’ve ever had – I can now understand why the name “Roquefort” is, well, actually a name to remember. Its pungency is at a level that is inoffensive, yet beautifully rendering sweet, bitter, milky and creamy notes on the palate. It’s worth the horrid breath that’s an inevitability in this cheese’s consumption.
D’Affinois, while having the reputation as one of, if not the fattiest cheeses in existence (D’Affinois can be up to 70-80% fat in content), is in this case simply like eating thick cream. There was very little flavour, the quince paste and provided cheese crackers being far more flavourful than it. As such, I couldn’t (and really shouldn’t – for the sake of my heart) finish it.
Lastly, the manchego is somewhere in between the previous two cheeses in personal preference. It’s a somewhat chunky, difficult to cut (relatively speaking) cheese, with a light flavour while masticating, but having a more powerful and long-lasting finish on the palate. This is a great cheese to put onto a toastie, and I might do just that at some point…
My tip? Get the cheese triplicate, and then share it between the table.
I mentioned that my favourite dish at Aubergine is the wagyu rib entree, but guess what’s my favourite dish for the entire meal? Yep, hardly a surprise here – it’s the dessert of brown butter ice cream, almond praline & frozen verbena milk. Now, in my last post, I spoke of a marvelous, dessert-of-the-year level dessert at Muse Restaurant. Guess what, I wouldn’t imagine that I’d be rethinking that so soon with Aubergine’s dessert.
Sure, it’s about as unassuming as a Toyota Corolla, and as plain as flour, but its personality is 100% in the taste. The brown butter ice cream? Utterly creamy, full of nuttiness and depth from being taken to the dark side. And that’s far from the best part. I dig through the dessert, and encounter an almond praline that quite literally is the best I’ve ever had. Crunchy, crumbly and nutty textures in all the right places, literally each and every bite was an absolute delight.
The last element of the dessert is what ties everything together, and the photo above shows is gratuitously – the frozen verbena milk. Refreshingly cool, powdery milk ice melts into creaminess in the mouth, an exceedingly satisfying experience that fulfils both palate cleanser and dessert roles all at once. It’s like the strawberries & cream dessert at Bennelong, but I daresay the combination at Aubergine at worst, rivals it, and at best leaves it in the dust.
Sure, it’s not a looker, but this is truly a case of taste trumping all else.
If you can handle fairly heavy, meaty savoury dishes and love your dessert, Aubergine is your port of call when on the lookout for a Canberra fine diner. I can see myself returning here one day, especially if their desserts are at the quality I witnessed on this particular visit. Go for gold Canberra, go for gold.
This post is based on an independently paid visit to Aubergine Restaurant.
Have you experienced Canberra’s best? Does the idea of frozen milk as dessert sound appealing? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
- A strong showing of meat dishes that should keep any meatlover happy
- Quite literally one of the best desserts you’ll ever have
- No-fuss, get-it-done service
- Savoury courses can get real heavy, portion sizes are a little out of whack for the average diner’s appetite. Come hungry, otherwise leave stuffed
- An overcooked quail leaves mains a little wanting
- It’s another case of a restaurant whose best (the dessert) must be saved till last
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F7 | S4 | A3