I’m often asked for ideas on where to take someone for a special occasion, and, while the possibilities are endless, I usually can’t go past waxing lyrical about Sage. However – finally! – I’m able to say I’ve found a restaurant which I think is just as good as Sage.
The Artisan is nestled in the Narrabundah shops. I call the restaurant on Friday morning asking if there’s any chance that two people could squeeze in that night. It’s not easily done, but I’m still offered options with time, while being realistic: “I’ve got a table at around 8.15, 8.30 – there’s a table beforehand, but I expect them to be out before 8.15.” This is a simple conversation, but it instantly tells me that a) they want my business b) they’re not making promises they can’t keep c) they’re managing my expectations – 8.15 if we’re lucky, 8.30 if we’re not. Fine by me.
After a pre-dinner cocktail (Centenary, naturally) at Polit Bar, we end up circling the Narrabundah shops twice trying to see exactly where The Artisan is located. Like other premises in the precint, it’s a narrow but deep venue. We still walk in just a smidgen past 8.15, and our table is both free and has already been (re)set.
A long bar and the kitchen takes up one long wall, while the tables are lined up along the other long wall. It’s an unusual set up, but it works for the space. Tables of two are angled against (not aligned with) the wall, and rather than sitting across from each other, couples take neighbouring sides – the angle means that both of us get to see everything that’s going on.
We take a long time to decide what to eat, but I make an easy decision to start with the Chandon Rose–as has seemingly everyone else in the restaurant. There’s a degustation menu, a truffle degustation menu, and a normal menu which is just as tempting.
I somehow convince Boyfriend that we need two entrees each, as well as a main, and that I will definitely be able to fit in dessert. He’s sceptical, but reluctantly agrees. Our waiter (all staff at The Artisan this Friday night are young men; there are no female staff) doesn’t judge (well, I may ask him not to judge us), and instead remarks that most of what we choose are his favourite dishes (he also assures me that he doesn’t just say that about every dish).
The complimentary bread comes out first. It is hot, hot, hot – too hot for me to cut. Boyfriend began his employment working in a bakery, so shows off that he destroyed all the nerve endings in his fingertips during his period but easily handling the bread. There’s plenty of salty butter and the bread has a crunchy outside and light, soft inside. Yum!
Entrees 1 of 2 arrive shortly after. I start with the pan-seared scallops with black pudding crumble, corn puree and frisee (no, I don’t know what the last thing is) (okay, apparently it’s the green stuff on the plate). The scallops are delicate, and perfectly cooked. The flavours are exquisite: the black pudding crumble makes the dish, and I find myself dividing the dollops of corn puree by the scallops so that every bite has the perfect combination of flavours.
Boyfriend starts with the prawn and saffron cannelloni, with lobster beurre blanc and picked spanner crab. Boyfriend’s disappointed, and on a quick taste myself, I can see why. It’s presented nicely, but bland, whereas every mouthful of mine has been exquisite. Trepidation about the rest of the experience sets back in.
I’m really excited by the next dish, and, while it does take a considerable time to appear, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s described simply, and presented simply: thick toast soldiers, a watery egg, and shaved truffle on top. Eggs on toast is a go to meal for me (breakfast, lunch, dinner, anything), so I’m already won over. The toast is a little too crunchy, but the egg soaked in mitigates this. Like with truffled brie, truffle and egg is the perfect match.
I’ve moved to the Collector Lamp Lit Marsanne (a Canberra region wine! The wine list by the bottle is lengthy and features a number of Canberra wines; the wine list by the glass is short), and, as The Artisan suggests, it matches perfectly with the truffle and egg.
After Boyfriend’s less than enthusiastic opinion of his first dish, we barely enter into discussion about his mushrooms on caramelised garlic bread. (I can reasonably assume it’s so good that he’s devouring it before I inevitably request a bite!)
Having worked through our two (!) entrees, I’m curious about what the mains might have in store. I had huge difficulty picking my main, but it’s the crackling that comes with the pork belly that won me over the goats cheese gnocchi (anything with goats cheese has my immediate intention).
It’s presented nicely, but is genuinely a big meal. It’s a big bit of pork belly, and a big bit of pork loin. It’s all so delicious, but incredibly filling. The big drawcard – crackling – is the let down for me, but perhaps it’s personal preference. I like crackling which manages the divide between crispy and chewy, but this is very, very crispy.
Boyfriend’s eye fillet with potato souffle, spinach puree and baby beetroot wins him over; the cannelloni is long forgotten. The beef is a truly thick cut, and it’s cooked (medium rare) perfectly. The potato souffle is something else (I beg for a bite), and I find myself with severe food envy. (I may shamelessly beg for another bite.) Like mine, it’s a big, filling dish.
Like most people, I seem to have two stomachs: one for the main meal, and another for dessert. There’s always room for dessert.
Again, I’ve trouble choosing. The tart tatin? The panna cotta (come on, popping candy!)? I settle with the meringue. Boyfriend breaks with his chocolate tradition, won over by the description of Artisan’s own ‘wagon wheel’ (I think I was the only kid in school that didn’t like wagon wheels!).
Dessert doesn’t disappoint. Boyfriend’s comes out with its own ‘chocolate ganache pot’, which the waiter pours over his wagon wheel (and then leaves extra for more pouring – that’s what I’m talking about!).
Did I say I settled with the meringue? Let me rephrase. I was utterly delighted with the meringue. It was like no meringue I’d ever eaten before. Case in point:
As you can see, it turns out to be not one meringue, but may little ones. They’re exactly like the menu describes: crispy shell but delightfully soft and chewy on the inside. (I was that kid/teenager/adult who always wanted to make meringues and then thought beating the egg whites by hand for 30 seconds was enough. Needless to say, I was perpetually disappointed. Meringues are still some sort of magic for me.) The rhubarb is tart with a lift of sweetness, and the wafer, while a separating device for purposes of presentation, brings it all together.
The waiters never fail to be friendly, polite, attentive and non-judgemental. The (female) bathroom has a lot of empty space, but one very long mirror, and both paper towels and a Dyson hand dryer (win!). The staff do constantly dry the dishes by hand throughout the night a few feet away from us behind the bar, but I’m willing to describe this as endearing. After we pay and get up to leave, Boyfriend enquires about our coats; we’re politely pointed in the direction of the door where another waiter is waiting to help us into them and wish us a pleasant evening.
It’s a genuinely lovely experience. Indeed, the slightly strange layout of the restaurant means you can’t get lost/ignored in a corner or the middle of a floor. Our hosts are pleasant and polite, and the dishes are experimental while firmly lodging themselves in the familiar. The truffle and egg in particular is bold but almost perfectly executed, and, even though it’s almost a week later, I’ve thought about the dessert every day since (what does this say about me?).
Date: Friday, 16 August 2013
Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile
Cost: 19 (scallops) + 19 (cannelloni) + 22 (truffle) + 19 (mushrooms) + 35 (beef) + 33 (pork) + 15 (meringue – a steal) + 15 (wagon wheel) + 4 (coffee) + 10 (Chandon Rose) + 10 (Marsanne) + 12 (Ten Minutes by Tractor Pinot Noir) + 8 x 2 (Schobers Merlot) = $229 (astute readers will note a degustation contains similar dishes, but is $150 each with wines)
*Food creativity: 7 (out of possible 10)
*Ability to take photos of food without flash (aka lighting): 1 (out of 10) = ie dim = sorry about quality of photos
*Canberra region wines on wine list: High number of good quality wines; not just chosen because it’s Canberra, which I respect (though personally I think we have some other amazing dessert wines which could reasonably make the list)
* I am going to change/update the summary I report at the end, and am interested: what do you want to know/look for?
- Truffle Degustation at Benchmark Wine Bar (inthetaratory.wordpress.com)
- Truffled brie at Mt Majura Vineyard (inthetaratory.wordpress.com)
- Truffle Kerfuffle (boyeatsworld.com.au)
- Adventures in Griffith | Griffith Vietnamese Restaurant and Aubergine (yummylummy.com)
- LIttle Truffle, mid week delight! (woodleykate.wordpress.com)
- In The Taratory in South East Asia (inthetaratory.wordpress.com)
- Parliament House (inthetaratory.wordpress.com)
- Canberra bashing. We are over it. My response to Fairfax and @feed_the_chooks (alankerlin.blogspot.com)