It’s 4.30pm on a Friday and we play ‘which Canberra restaurant is still taking bookings?’. We laughably try for Eighty-Six (definitely full) and I suggest to Boyfriend that maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to get into Soju Girl. We have talked about going forever. They’ve got a table available at 6, and a table available at 10. We hesitate, and go with 6.
I expect Soju Girl to be as bright and exciting as the colours on its website. But my first impression of the restaurant is that it’s dark. Really dark. There’s a bar area (I had no idea it existed) and it’s almost black. In the restaurant area where we’re led to our seats, there are dark walls, dark pictures on the wall (notably there’s abstract art– actually no, it’s just a black and white picture of the National Museum), and very dim lighting. On the tables are bowls into which you can spoon your food – all dishes are made for sharing.
The service is particularly good. Our waiter is very friendly. Everyone who dines is asked if they’ve visited before. We obviously haven’t, and so she tells us how it works – there are smaller dishes, and bigger dishes. Rather logically, you don’t need as many large dishes as you do small dishes. She recommends we try a number of small dishes to really get the most out of the experience (while allowing room for dessert), and leaves us with the menus briefly, and says she’ll be back to tell us the specials. As promised, she returns quickly, takes our drink order and rattles off the specials. Most are bacon or pork based, which Boyfriend doesn’t eat (I know, I know), but the sashimi of the day wins us over.
She leaves us alone again with the menus. It sounds like a lot of toing and froing, but it’s a nice way to think about the menu and not feel pressured to make a decision. There is simply a lot of things on the menu to choose from – over 20 small dishes. We go up and down the menu, first talking about what each of us doesn’t want, and then choosing from what’s left. There’s still so much! We seriously consider getting out a pen to tick off the items we want, because we keep forgetting. A bit of an ordeal!
By the time our drinks are served we are (somehow) ready. From a list of exotic sounding cocktails, I’ve chosen an Opium Dream – a mix of Bombay Sapphire gin and strawberry liqueur served in a martini glass, with a basil leaf garnish.
It’s delicious, but the glass is barely half full when served, and with a $16 price tag, I’m conscious of the dollars consumed with each sip. That said, I’d order it again.
There’s a mix of raw and cooked food on the menu, and we’ve ordered a mix of both. Our attentive waiter has advised us that the raw food is served first, and then the cooked, which makes sense.
The south coast oysters with citrus ponzu granita arrive first. They’re $3.80 each, and there’s a minimum order of three. They look very large compared to the small (but packed with flavour) south coast oysters I’ve seen and eaten recently. I’ve never had oysters with a granita, so it’s a completely new taste sensation for me. I hate to say it, but I don’t like it. Do I eat the granita and oyster in one mouthful? I assume so, and do so. That said, it’s hard to get them both together into my mouth simultaneously, and the oyster and granita – both the iciness and the ponzu (soy citrus) flavour – don’t blend well. I love oysters, and I love new combinations (and recently had some wonderful oysters with different flavour combos at Capital Wines), but this doesn’t work for me.
Next is the sugar cured swordfish. It’s a lovely presentation, but to be honest, I can’t even see how good it looks until I take a picture with the flash – the darkness means that the effort gone into making the dish look superb is almost futile. There are pretty flowers, a thin sauce thick with flavour, and dollops of avocado wasasbi. It’s hard to pick up the slivers of swordfish, but wow, are they good. I wish there was more, and am a little disappointed there’s not. It’s takes a lot of energy to stop me from licking the plate.
The dishes come out quickly – we only arrived at 6 and by 6.30 we’re more than halfway through the dishes. The sashimi of the day (salmon) comes next. It’s a real flavour explosion – the salmon is silky, the cucumber so crunchy fresh, the bean sprouts the right complement.
The zucchini flowers come out next. They are ENORMOUS. I’ve never seen zucchini flowers so big – it’s because they’re stuffed with sushi rice, big time. It’s really different from the standard ‘zucchini flower with goat’s cheese’ and it’s really, really filling, as you’d expect. It’s nothing like our zucchini flower failure at Siren Bar.
The next dish is equally large, and arrives a few seconds after the zucchini flower. There are two big, big servings of Japanese eggplant stuffed with pork mince, sesame and pepitas ($3 more expensive than the steamed eggplant dish with goma). It’s almost impossible to pick up off the dish, it’s that stuffed with filling. Boyfriend somehow gets his into his own dish, while we have to do some sneaky sliding into my own dish – otherwise it was literally going to fall apart. It’s another real ‘value for money’ dish.
We’d earlier ordered a side, and it comes out the same time as the eggplant, which seems a bit weird – it’s supposed to be a side, not our penultimate dish. We’ve ordered it for some greenery, but the brocollini with oyster sauce is frankly unmemorable.
Our waiter notices our drinks are entry, and she asks if we’d like the wine list again. There’s a good range of Canberra Wines on the list, but I think they are missing some of Canberra’s best. I spend a lot of time gasping over and distracted by the Barton Estate 2003 Shiraz listed at $70 a bottle. Yes, it’s a 2003 vintage, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s like a Penfolds Grange 1998: most of Barton Estate’s wines are early-mid 2000s vintages, and are sold at the cellar door for ~$25 (we went there recently, after all). Maybe I’m missing something – it has sold out, but that could mean not a lot were made? – but $70 seems extraordinary.
Anyway! Nick O’Leary is there, as well as McKellar Ridge, Pankhurst, Long Rail Gully, Bourke Street, Eden Road and Lark Hill.
I’ve been saving room for dessert. Oh yes. There’s a great dessert list, but my eye is on the chocolate fondant. Even at $19 a serve, Boyfriend and I agree we can’t share, and order one each.
It’s the longest wait we’ve had (about 10-15 minutes). They arrive with a flourish, and are identically presented (Pete and Manu would be proud). Each fondant is presented with a spiced chocolate anglaise, and a malted icecream.
But of course it’s the ooze we’re looking for. Will the fondant ooze once we cut into it?
Yes, yes it does. It’s warm and chocolatey and delicious. I’d almost say it’s slightly undercooked. Or, put differently, there’s already so much liquidy, ice-creamyness on the plate, that once we add the huge amount of chocolate ooze, there’s actually very little cake to eat. Plenty of mouthfuls are cakeless. It doesn’t make it any less delicious, and I’d much prefer an oozy fondant than one that’s simple a cake. But still. It just misses the mark.
And, we’re done. I had very, very high expectations before going to Soju Girl. I’ve never heard of a bad experience, and ours wasn’t bad. It was great. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But … but. Neither of us is absolutely blown away. It is delicious. But boyfriend notes the ‘cafe’ feel of a number of the more upmarket restaurants we’ve been to recently – all emphasis on food, and seemingly cheap tables and chairs – and Soju Girl’s dining area feels similar. The oysters were a disappointing start, and the food didn’t seem particularly filling til later in the meal. I constantly felt like it almost hit the mark, so close every time, but always just missed by very smallest of margins.
Date: 6-7.10pm, Friday 27 April
Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile
Want more? Try the Soju Girl website