Maggie and I enjoy visiting Canberra but, to use that well-worn phrase, we wouldn’t want to live there. Like some other cities built from scratch in the 20th century to house national governments and their agencies, it has a reputation for being somewhat soulless and unattractively atypical, economically, socially and, to some extent, physically. Some years ago, it was even described as ‘a waste of a good sheep paddock’, being built, as it was, on land that was once home to flocks of sheep.
For much of each year, there is at least a sense that business is being done, with hotel rooms full on weeknights, and local bars and restaurants crowded with politicians, their staff, journalists, lobbyists, diplomats, public servants, consultants, sundry parasites and more than a little intrigue. Indeed, the city is home to numerous fine dining establishments, most of which have been named at least once in a news story as being where some famous and/or clandestine rendezvous took place.
We had timed our visit so as to arrive the day after the national parliament had risen for the summer recess. Although this left some of the city’s streets looking deserted, it also meant that there was no shortage of tables at our chosen cafes and restaurants. Here is a brief account of where and what we ate.
Clementine Restaurant, Yass
We actually spent our first night in the town of Yass, about 40 minutes on the Melbourne side of Canberra. Yass has a population of about 6,000 but, somewhat surprisingly, it is the home of a very highly regarded restaurant, Clementine.
Maggie had read about Clementine in a newspaper article and, once we had explored its menu, we booked a table and then booked a room at one of the town’s accommodation establishments. (Judging by the number of the latter, we imagine that some business travellers choose to stay in Yass and then drive in to Canberra, where hotel rooms can be quite expensive during the working week.)
It had been a warm day ‘north of the border’, so we opted to sit at one of Clementine’s outdoor tables and admire the restaurant’s cottage garden in the mild evening air.
We each selected one appetiser and one entree. Maggie began with cured salmon, pickled beetroot, dill and radishes, a delicate and delicious plate for the ‘knock-the-door-down’ price of $10. For one dollar less, I had a more robust combination of sobrassada, white anchovy, pickled eschallot & crisp toasts; something out of the norm for me and perhaps a little salty, but partnered well by a glass of rose.
Maggie’s second plate was adorned with roasted duck breast – oh there’s a surprise! – charred peach, radicchio, pistachio and a not-too-sweet orange caramel; close to perfection for a mere $20. For one dollar more, I received a plate of bona fide perfection – pan-fried Tasmanian scallops, sauteed peas, mint, bacon and pea puree. If I have ever been served a better dish of my favourite seafood, it was too long ago to matter.
I had arrived at Clementine doubting the need for dessert, having enjoyed afternoon tea at The Roses, the pick of the local cafes. However, Maggie’s enthusiasm and our waiter’s encouragement landed us a shared bowl of soft chocolate mousse, marinated cherries, coconut panna cotta and toasted shreds of coconut; a steal at $14.
Between us, we enjoyed five glasses from an appealing wine list, slanted towards wines produced in the Canberra region. However, it was the chef/owner’s fine skills in the kitchen which made this one of, if not, the best meals we have enjoyed in an Australian rural town. You can learn more about Clementine here, including some delightful photos of the garden and the outdoor space where we dined.
Ottoman Restaurant, Canberra
Before we left Melbourne, we had also booked to dine at Ottoman, a long-lived and multi-award-winning restaurant serving food with a Turkish influence. As a bonus, it was only a five-minute walk from our hotel. Our table overlooked an attractive courtyard, populated by roses, jasmine and a workplace Christmas party.
We decided to place our appetites in the hands of our experienced waiter, subject to a couple of ‘must haves’ and ‘no thanks’. He brought us four appetisers/entrees and two main courses to share.
We began with one of the evening’s specials, tuna carpaccio, olive oil, micro herbs and some citrus and pepper elements that I can’t quite recall. I do remember that it was close to sublime.
The tuna was soon followed by crispy zucchini flowers filled with goat’s feta & halloumi cheese – tasty enough but I still don’t ‘get’ zucchini flowers; and Queensland king prawns, sautéed with shitake mushrooms & baby spinach, served with lemon yoghurt sauce, a pleasing mix of flavours and textures.
Our last entree was yufka pastry rolls of shredded duck, onions, currants, pine-nuts & herbs served with a pomegranate & yoghurt sauce. These fell short of expectations, if only because there was too little inside the pastry, and the filling needed a larger component of duck and spice.
The next dish was thin slices of veal seasoned with mild Aleppo chilli, char-grilled, served with leek & potato skordalia, baby spinach and a mustard sauce. We cook veal in several ways at home but we had always assumed that char-grilling would produce a dry or chewy result. Not so at Ottoman! We enjoyed this dish so much that we are now one sleep away from trying it at home.
Some of you might be pleased that we put the iPhone away before our last plate – sauteed calf livers, spinach and a jus – arrived at the table. A pleasure for my offal-friendly wife but otherwise a bit more food than we needed; certainly, there was no room for dessert, shared or otherwise. Overall, we’d had a very satisfactory meal, and we would be happy to dine at Ottoman when we make our next pilgrimage to the national capital.
On the previous evening, we had dined at our Canberra hotel, the heritage-listed Hotel Kurrajong. The menu was on the pricey side but, despite several typos, it read as an opportunity to have a very good meal in a very attractive setting.
Not so! I should have taken the typos – ‘asaparagus’ for one – as a sign that this hotel dining room had aspirations beyond its abilities. For that is what unfolded; including the service, which was friendly and well-intentioned but noticeably disorganised.
Here is Maggie’s entree of house-smoked duck breast, witlof orange salad and berry vinaigrette. She was happy enough with the flavours, although it lacked the wow factor of her duck entree in Yass. The main shortcoming was actually an excess … of duck fat, which formed an ugly pile by the time she was finished. She followed that with an item listed in the menu’s ‘nose-to-tail’ section; I won’t go there!
I began with an entree of cured salmon, apple fennel salad and verjus dressing. It was a bit plain, if agreeably fresh, and it was coarsely prepared and presented. That was followed by a ‘New York cut sirloin’, which was overwhelmed by an awful mushroom sauce that failed to disguise the abundance of gristle in the steak. Serve that up in lower Manhattan and you’ll get more than your steak cut!
At least the view into the hotel’s courtyard was charming. We retired there to detox and returned to the scene for breakfast.
It’s not that the meal was a complete disaster – and, yes, we can be harsh critics – but at the price, it should have been a triumph. We think they’d be better off to dumb the menu down to the level of expertise in the kitchen – in principle, there’s no shame in offering a nice piece of grilled fish, chips and salad option – and make their profits from the bar.
Before we entered the Australian War Memorial, we had a good quality coffee at Poppy’s Cafe, a recent and handsome addition to the museum precinct.
And we made two visits to Silo, widely regarded as one of the very best bakery-cafes in the eastern half of Australia. It was recommended to us on our first stay in Canberra and, through five samplings, and counting, of its wares, it has never failed us.