To round out the year, the Canberra Good Food team of reviewers, Karen Hardy, Kirsten Lawson and Natasha Shan, has put together a list of our favourite restaurants of 2019.
There are some new names from the 2018 list, plenty of old faces, hard to leave others out. But this list is about the places we’ve enjoyed and gone back to, our subjective assessment of where we like to eat.
Did we get it right? Let us know your favourite places.
1. Italian and Sons
If there’s one place in Canberra that’s impressive, dependable and exciting at the same time, it’s Italian and Sons. Italian food at its best – seasonal, considered and produce driven. The pasta is always sensational, and its plates of the day showcase the best of Italian techniques. Italian and Sons, sister of Mezzalira, is run by Canberra’s most experienced and clear-eyed restaurateurs and it shows. Food, service and feel remains up to date and spot on. Two seatings, booked out most nights. Down the alleyway behind Italian and Sons and sharing its kitchen is Bacaro, a top-notch pizza bar. Brilliant pizzas, cool Italian wines, beautiful olives and bread, this could well be our favourite of all. TS and KL
Pilot is for the aficionados and appears to have been noticed by them around the country. It’s quite unique for Canberra – very cheffy while at the same time massively youthful. Hell, it almost has a hipster vibe. Except no hipster would be eating out like this. It has a high-end feel, down to the bespoke tableware and tiny dining room. The food is studied, precise, lean. On each plate one thing that has been contemplated and perfected to such extremes it’s almost a shame it gets eaten and it would be heresy to do so without taking each mouthful seriously. Dishes such as chuck tail, smoked cream + bbq onions; kale egg + soubise; cabbage e pepe; roast chook. Yep, complete with that pesky +. KL
Smart, sexy and stylish, but still casual enough to drop in any time of the day, Temporada was a highlight this year. Chef Dave Young is not afraid to push boundaries but he never loses sight of quality produce and execution. And the results are showing on the plate. We’re keen to spend more time getting to know the Spanish infused wine list, perched at the bar with a selection of share plates. Or maybe more early morning visits, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better breakfast menu. KH
Probably one of the best value two-hatted restaurants in the country, Aubergine continues to delight. It’s formal and designed for special occasions, but the reality is that there are several times in the past year when we’ve spent more eating at less exciting places. Aubergine is one of the few Canberra places that delivers not just great food, but a complete dining experience. There’s always a feeling of excitement about produce and flavours that I rarely get anywhere else. TS
5. Bar Rochford
This is a bar just the way they should be, Mildly obscure, dim, candlelit and intimate. Also, pretty, eclectic, retro. Plus a historic building. And how often can you say all that in Canberra? Bar Rochford is in the Melbourne Building, up a narrow staircase, with lovely half-round windows. You can come here for a drink at the central bar, or a meal – and the menu is excellent for this, It’s small-dishes eating so you order a bunch of them. Like a plate of padron peppers with grated mandarin, mostly mild but occasionally blistering. Or fresh local figs presented super-simple with taleggio and preserved lemon. Flatbreads with anchovies and pickles, the pickles all made in the kitchen – which looks little more than an open serving hatch at the end of the room. KL
6. The Italian Place
This is a newbie and gosh it’s good. It’s almost a little old-fashioned in that it’s so sturdily Italian and we love pretty much everything about it. This is Tony’s place, which does as well as the Italian Place to identify it. Tony Lo Terzo hails from top Italian restaurants in Melbourne but has been in Canberra the best part of a decade front of house largely at the Trimboli joint Italian and Sons. He’s superb on the floor and now with his own eatery, and former Italian and Sons head chef Francesco Petrillo his partner in the kitchen, he’s in his element. They’re doing classic but super simple, generous and everyday Italian. Housemade pastas with pork ragu; or pesto; crumbed sardines (love these); a beautiful simple salt cod whip. It’s a small space spilling on to Mort Street, and a bit chaotic. It’s not fine dining in that it’s not especially in control or precise, but this we also love. It’s the Italian way, this family feel and mad bonhomie. KL
It’s hard to believe that XO have been quietly plodding away in their little corner in Narrabundah for over four years. That said, the team at XO have really dialled it up this year. They’ve stayed true to their food philosophy, delivering clever twists on dishes from their shared heritage. The result, South East Asian dining that’s both nostalgic yet innovative – no easy feat.
The pho dumplings are a standout. Four plump dumplings in a clear beef broth topped with beansprouts. Biting into each dumpling is like having the perfect mouthful of beef pho – diced beef with a good hit of herbs and chilli, the beansprouts on top adding freshness and crunch. It’s a clever twist on a street food dish; in fact, I struggle to think of a more memorable reinvention of a classic dish like pho. A favourite new restaurant discovery this year. TS
8. Lanterne Rooms
Lanterne has had an almost shocking remake this year, shocking not in a bad way but given its lengthy tenure at the Campbell shops, it takes some adjusting to think it has taken up residence in one of those new apartment buildings at the lake end of Campbell. We haven’t visited the new place – that will take some working up to, since the old location was such a firm favourite. The food starts in Malaysia and adds the inventiveness, modernity and poppiness that these folks have become known for. Lanterne is part of the Chairman and Yip group, now colonising this part of town – the Chinese-based Chairman and the Japanese Lilotang are just over the lake in Barton.The menu, you’ll be pleased to hear, hasn’t changed. Tom yum-infuse prawns with rockmelon; Kampung-style beef curry; pork belly and tamarind. KL
9. Monster Kitchen and Bar
The menu at Monster is as eclectic has the furniture throughout the lobby of Ovolo Nishi. From comte gougeres, to miso-glazed eggplant, and a white chocolate namelaka dessert served with sansho strawberries, yuzu curd and nikka whisky ice cream. The spiced lamb ribs with curry leaf and chilli jam was a standout meal of the year. Walking up that staircase instantly puts you in the right mood. Turn right and grab a drink at the bar and settle on a couch with some share plates. Or head into the dining room with the impressive circular fireplace. KH
Ottoman has remained much the same over many years and it’s hard to say whether that’s because it has become set in its ways or because its loyal clientele loves what it does. Either way, Ottoman walks the line between traditional and modern with ease; classic but not home style, contemporary but not overly flamboyant. It’s an elegant set-up with white tablecloths and lovely gardens in Barton, with a large dining room, and separate private rooms, well-patronised by Canbera’s business and political set. The food is broadly Mediterranean, its inspiration from the Ottoman Empire. Turkish dips, housemade; stuffed zucchini flowers; chargrilled kingfish; lamb skewers; sticky ice-creams of rose and cardamom; pomegranate and more. TS
11. Rebel Rebel
Rebel Rebel has burst on to the scene this year with, well not quite a yell, but a small frisson of excitement. That’s because of who’s at the helm – Sean McConnell who gave Canberra dining such a whack over the head when he opened Monster. It’s taken over the city, so we’re all familiar with those intense Asian flavours underpinning local ingredients, a love of vegetables, and turning things like squid ink into crackers. Monster has gone a different route, and McConnell has turned to a casual version, all-day food, funky mixed-up feel. The food is mixed, also, but bang-on in concept and usually successful in execution. Tongue, peppers, oloroso – you know you want to say yes. Brussels sprouts, nduja, lemon, pangrattato is a difficult bowl of ridiculous heat and sulphur crunch. Corn and manchego croquettes with prawn head aioli delicious from first bite to last. Rhubarb fool with buckwheat is dessert of the year without question. KL
Morks is one of those restaurants that every suburb wishes they had. Fun, casual – the kind of place that you can just wander in on a weeknight and still be guaranteed to get a good feed.Just walking into Morks, you’re transported to South East Asia. There are large Thai murals on the wall and the smell of steamed rice and curry pastes are warm and welcoming. Parts of the short one-page menu change with the seasons, but keep an eye out for the best of Australia meets Asia with favourites like wallaby tortilla and soft shell crab sando. TS
Grazing is a showcase of head chef Kurt Neumann’s love of local produce. The menu changes with the seasons, indeed the restaurant morphs too. In winter the old stone building is warmed by the open fires, in spring the garden finds a new lease of life. The wine list is primarily local and we love that – more Canberra restaurants should follow suit. The pineapple tarte tatin with raisin ice cream and rum custard was a favourite dessert in 2019. Perhaps we need to rethink Grazing, it’s too good to save for special occasions. KH
This Trimboli brothers’ restaurant delivers polished versions of Italian classics. Its tortellini di Zucca hails from northern Italy, and has been refined over 20 years, or so we’re told. Really beautiful fresh pastas – the classic pumpkin tortellini with burnt sage butter; maccheroncini with meat ragu; pork belly with baked apple, cavolo nero and chili is brilliant, and the flourless chocolate torte a welcome end to any meal. Mezzalira’s dining room used to be the setting for Canberra’s first bank – the bank vault is still intact and used to house wine, which is fitting considering that it took out the title of ACT wine list of the year. TS
What a surprise this place has turned out to be. It’s not ultra-modern in approach. The menu is structured around covering the main proteins, and three-course dining. But the cooking is beautiful. Prawn moussaka comes as charred prawns on half an eggplant, fresh, hot and delicious. Spatchcock is butterflied and charred; lamb cutlets simple, on the chargrill and served with potato salad. It’s Mediterranean in approach – Erkin Esen started this place after working for some years at Ottoman. It’s simplicity and panache is what carries the day. The feel is upmarket, intimate and sparkling. KL
Be it bento, robata or sushi, the Chairman Group has all bases covered at this smart one-stop Japanese diner. There’s a little bit of izakaya attitude thrown into the decor of blond plywood and concrete with punchy graphics. During the day, the bento-brigade pops in for the lunch specials, but if you have time, settle in for the well-priced tasting menu to see what the kitchen is really up to. On the plate, attention to detail is noteworthy and dishes carry a depth of flavour. KH
17. Morning Glory
There are few places serving such quality food from dawn to dusk. MG woke up in 2018 just serving breakfast and lunch. You could start the day with the best egg and bacon roll in town, (the char sui bacon is to die for) or grab a terung burger with eggplant, halloumi and a spicy sambal to go at lunch. Now there’s a night-time menu as well. And the stylish space lights up at night with a selection of their signature dishes with an Asian twist. Pop in for a cocktail as the sun sets and you might end up staying all night. KH
morning-glory.com.au / NewActon Pavilion, 2/15 Edinburgh Ave, Canberra
Raku is Canberra’s best Japanese. It’s studious and deliberate, it’s upmarket and not the place you go to hang loose so it sometimes feels almost less than welcoming. However, the food is very good. Deep-fried eggplant with red and white miso is a favourite dish – half an eggplant chopped lengthways, cooked super soft and topped half with white miso and half with red. Slow-cooked octopus with XO and miso, green and relish, brussels sprouts is hot and pungent, the tentacles cooked to meaty softness and charred on the outside. Unagi maki rolls are beautifully cut, fresh and good. The feel is luxe so you forget you’re on the ground floor of the Canberra Centre, and you want to take the design tips home, until you remember that huge thick rounds of bamboo work as a ceiling lining in a restaurant – or a hotel – but not in the lounge. KL
rakudining.com.au / 148 Bunda St, Canberra
19. Les Bistronomes
Les Bistronomes is classic French, and now it has moved to Campbell it’s a little more upmarket French. For a special occasion, this is a good pick, and if you’re in the know you will go straight to the shared mains. Order the duck in ash and they’ll bring the bird in its smoking crust to show you, then bring back the duck on a platter as duck a l’orange with pickled red cabbage for you to share. Les Bistronomes does a similar thing with boeuf en croute and it’s just an excellent way to eat. And if you’re lucky you might find an entire tarte tatin for dessert. Heaven. We usually start with duck liver parfait, or pork rillettes, because we love these casual classics. We’re still mourning the move from Braddon, where the scruffiness added to the Parisian chic in our fevered imagination but 2020 will see how things bed down in Campbell.
lesbistronomes.net / 18 Blamey Place, Campbell
Wood-fired meats are the star here; Terra is canteen-style food by day, and contemporary dining by night. I love their unpretentious big salad platters with lots of choice for lunch, but I’m also delighted when chef Sung and the team refine it a bit, with polished share plates for dinners. What’s not to love about Terra’s food philosophy? It’s approachable; the kind of food that appears deceptively simple but is really the product of good produce combined with excellent technique. Love is in the details, and it’s here in spades, from the service through to the house-made pickles and sauces. TS
terracanberra.com.au / No Name Lane, g2/40 Marcus Clarke St, Canberra