Soju Girl

27 Apr

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.

Opium dream

Opium dream

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.

Three south coast oysters with soy ponzu granita

Three south coast oysters with citrus ponzu granita (yep, photos with flash – it really was that dark!)

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.

Sugar cured swordfish (one piece of swordfish eaten in this pic)

Sugar cured swordfish (one piece of swordfish eaten in this pic)

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.

20130426_181916_20130427160031410

Salmon sashimi

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.

Enormous zucchini flower stuffed with sushi rice

Enormous zucchini flower stuffed with sushi rice

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.

Japanese eggplant

Japanese eggplant

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.

Brocollini

Brocollini

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.

Chocolate fondant

Chocolate fondant

But of course it’s the ooze we’re looking for. Will the fondant ooze once we cut into it?

Oh yes, it oozes

Oh yes, it oozes

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

Cost: $165.40

Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile

Want more? Try the Soju Girl website

Soju Girl on Urbanspoon

2013-04-27 21.30.49

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20 Responses to “Soju Girl”

  1. Gary Lum April 27, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    Looks good T1. The photos were good despite the poor lighting. I must ask Bron if she wants to go there.

    • inthetaratory April 27, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

      Yes, I’d love to hear what you guys think. The photos required flash – I was sure I’d upset other diners, but then I saw others using flash too!

      • Gary Lum April 27, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

        It’s always good when we can flash together at a restaurant lol :-)

  2. Yvette Adams April 28, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    I went for lunch so lighting was fine – I had no idea it was so bad at night! I was unlucky enough to get a large spikey piece of hard plastic in the salad in our entree. Which I only discovered when it was in my mouth – most unpleasant! I told the waitress when she collected our plates and then chef came out to personally apologise (he seemed very embarrassed). Our food was absolutely beautiful. I loved the beef cheek main and had a similar dessert to you but this was a year ago and back then it came with peanut butter ice cream and salted caramel smear. I was really disappointed that they didn’t give us the entree for free or offer anything complimentary so I haven’t been back since. It was a shame cos the food was beautiful, I was just put out that they didn’t offer anything to compensate for the entree.

    • inthetaratory April 28, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

      Such a good story – and sums it up, I think. It’s great, everything’s beautiful, but it’s the small things like that that let it down. I didn’t put it in the post because I wasn’t quite sure what I heard, but it seemed like when another waiter was rattling off the specials that he mentioned a special we would have LOVED but our own waiter had forgotten to mention. So small, but makes such a difference.

  3. Rachi April 28, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

    Love this comprehensive review! I just had a look at their current menu and it’s definitely changed since I was there in December, probably a seasonal thing. I’ll be going for round two in the next few weeks so it’ll be interesting to see if it lives up to my previous experience.

    That salmon sashimi looks incredible, shame that’s not a regular menu item. I totally agree about how dark and rather ordinary it is inside the restaurant. There’s definitely nothing special or memorable about the decor. And you definitely did get gypped on the cocktail quantity front there… looks like they’ve stopped serving them in the “takeaway noodle box glasses” because those were massive servings. I get what you mean that your experience missed the mark by a small margin; little things definitely matter!

    • inthetaratory April 28, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

      Thanks Rachi – yes, you’re exactly right on all counts! Really look forward to what you think when you head back soon. If the salmon is the sashimi of the day, I absolutely recommend you get it. Yum! ‘Takeaway noodle box’ glasses would have been preferable and would have given it a bit of a better vibe, I think ;)

  4. Natasha April 29, 2013 at 12:01 am #

    You’re so on the mark Tara. I’ve only been there once and like you I thought it was good but not great. The best dish was the dessert – and I’m not sure that’s a good thing from a place like Soju Girl! I think Canberra has a lot of over-hyped restaurants thanks to foodie demand outstripping supply. I’m constantly comparing places and finding most of them wanting. For around $80 a head (what you paid) I could go to Sake Sydney/Brisbane/Melbourne and I’d be blown away (and not get gypped on the drinks :).

    • inthetaratory April 30, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

      So true Natasha. Hopefully we’re slowly moving the way of Sydney (while keeping our own ‘flavour’) in terms of prices and quality!

  5. Christine (FoodWineTravel) April 30, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    I’ve always enjoyed the meals I’ve had at Soju Girl but $16 is awfully expensive for a cocktail when the glass is only half full. And re Yvette’s comment about her disappointment at not being compensated for the little piece of plastic found in her entree – I totally agree. It costs very little for a restaurant to extend some goodwill and makes all the difference to a customer’s perception of the place. The restaurant totally missed an opportunity to win her back.

    • inthetaratory April 30, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

      Spot on Christine. Exactly right – a few dollars in compensation is nothing compared to the cost of word of mouth about an experience like that!

  6. Bells May 1, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    I’ve been there but only for the Rose Revolution nights when frankly I’m a bit too drunk by the end to consider going for food so I’ve kept putting it off until I could go there and just eat. It sounds like a mixed bag – those zucchini flowers are much like some we had in Berry last week – stuffed with rice. I thought it was a very nice change since I’m lactose intolerant.

    Good write up. Fair and honest but still makes me want to go there to find out for myself.

    • inthetaratory May 1, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

      Thanks! Yes, I think you’ll enjoy it – I couldn’t *not* recommend it, but it’s not at the top of my ‘rave about’ list. Splitting hairs really, but important distinction! Will be interested to hear what you think!

  7. Richard Norman May 2, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    How did you find the noise level? The one time I attempted to go to Soju Girl with family we didn’t last five minutes due to the appallingly high background noise. I couldn’t hear the person next to me shouting. We walked out and went somewhere more pleasant.

    • inthetaratory May 2, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

      The noise level seemed to be okay, but we were there quite early. I can imagine it getting loud.

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