Enlighten: Starlight Dinner

1 Mar

The Canberra blogging community is just that: a community. One of the things I love most about it is that I’ve been able to meet the people behind the blogs I adore – and through them, I’ve met more great people and more great blogs! With the help of Twitter, shortly after the 2014 Enlighten program was released, a group of seven of us agree to purchase tickets and enjoy something we all like: a dinner experience.

This one’s hosted at Old Parliament House, and promises a night beginning witih canapes and drinks on the roof, followed by a dinner under the stars looking up at the Enlighten projections on Parliament House. As you can see from the link, it’s easy to get the impression that the dinner is also on the roof (however doable that might or might not be!), but regardless it’s definitely under the stars. There’s no detail on the number of courses, but I expect a solid degustation for the $150 fee. The chef is described as direct from Sydney, and while that’s kinda true, he’s also the head of the new Restaurant Associates group which has taken over the catering at OPH since mid last year.

We’re not sure how the tables work, so we contact Events ACT who happily agree to make sure we’re seated together even though we’re purchasing separate tickets. In the days leading up to the dinner the website is updated: the dinner is four courses only, and while we’ll start with canapes and drinks on the rooftop, we’ll still dine under the stars on the bridges at the back of OPH which face Parliament House. We receive e-mails with a few more instructions, including dressing for all seasons.

Champagne and beer is poured at the Members Bar

Champagne and beer is poured at the Members Bar

Right, sorted! We meet outside the entrance to the Members Dining Room and head inside to the Bar, expecting to be escorted up to the roof. Instead, drinks are being poured at the Members Bar. On entry we’re handed slips of coloured paper which will dictate where we’re seated. We all get red, but I’m immediately confused: aren’t we supposed to be sitting together? This seems distinctly not personal. There’re also only three colours… so is there a red table for seven people outside for us?

Distinctly impersonal

Distinctly impersonal

My impression had also been that this would be an intimate affair – and it was one of the reasons which drove us to purchase our tickets quickly. There are a lot of people here and, while it’s a cool, overcast night, the atmosphere in the Members Bar is hot, bordering on oppressive; it’s difficult to move with so many people inside (not unlike how it used to be pre-1988, I’m sure!).

After a drink, there’s an announcement that people will be escorted upstairs – finally! They’re doing it by colour, and that seems to make sense – we want it to be a civilised affair with no rushing. When it’s the red tables’ turns, we make our way to the stairs… but pass previous groups on their way back. So, the rooftop experience is only temporary, as the updated website suggested.

Opera singer on the roof of OPH

Opera singer on the roof of OPH

There’s a bar up top with pre-poured sparkling, but no canapes (those are served back downstairs, and we’re only approached once). Like in the Members Bar, we pick up our sparkling from makeshift bar rather than have it served to us. There’s an opera singer who performs beautifully, but it’s not quite dark yet so the beauty of the Parliamentary Triangle lit up with the projections and lights is lost.

The one thing that we can be confident is consistently good: the company!

The one thing that we can be confident is consistently good: the company!

We traipse back downstairs – we’ve now been here more than an hour – and gather outside the Members Bar where all my concerns are confirmed… even though it’s not raining, we’re not sitting outside. The doors open to the Members Dining Room and there are just three tables – three very long tables – sorted by colour. With seven of us, I feel like we’re going to be split up or at least stuck in painful negotiations trying to get people to shift seats so we can all sit together, so make a quick decision to head right to the back. It’s another ten minutes before the entire room’s seated. We end up with a unfilled seat next to our group.

Table setting

Table setting

Looking down our looong table

Looking down our looong table

We’ve bread and butter, and our wine glasses are filled with riesling: not Canberra riesling, but Clare Valley. We’re all puzzled with this choice. There’s no menu on the table, with the chef preferring to introduce his own dishes (we later learn the menu changed at the last minute). This is fine, and I rather like the mystery of it, but there can be mystery and surprise with a menu and with the dishes being introduced like at last year’s Brooks dinner.

Our first course is served and introduced, but there’s something wrong with the speaker or microphone, and we at the back end of the hall strain to hear (so my understanding of what we’re eating is lacking!). Without a menu, this is even more concerning if you had an allergy or something you didn’t like to eat.

Kingfish with plum three ways

Kingfish with plum three ways

Anyway! To the food. To my knowledge, we’re served Kingfish with plum three ways (fresh, sorbet and freeze-dried). I’m sceptical, but it’s much better than I anticipate; in fact, it’s my favourite dish of the night. The fish is beautifully textured and I particularly enjoy the sorbet and freeze-dried plums.

Full-blooded wagyu

Full-blooded wagyu

Our next dish is matched with not only a non-Canberran wine, but a foreign wine: Chateau St John (California) Cab Sauv 2008 (about $23 from Dan Murphy’s). The most I can discern from the introduction (even though there’s plenty of shhh and others tapping their glasses to encourage silence) is that it’s full-blooded wagyu beef with plenty of fat that’s been slow-cooked overnight. The mushrooms after from ourside Melbourne, and there’s beetroot and blanched cauliflower.

It’s easier to review than do, but MKR has taught me that every dish needs to be consistent. On comparison, some of us have two slices of beef while others have three, and there’s greenery on others’ plates that I don’t have. It’s tasty, but the edge of mine is particularly gristly.

Looking down our looong table (can you spot Frank?)

Looking down our looong table (can you spot Frank?)

While I’ve only got two slices, fortunately there’s Frank. Frank is the empty seat next to our group which the waiters insist on serving, even though we’ve told them there’s no one sitting there. We’re able to distribute Frank’s meal among us.

I'm having boarding school and college flashbacks...

I’m having boarding school and college flashbacks…

There’s a wait between each of the dishes which means there’s plenty of time to analyse our surroundings. I’m a little worried that we might suffer a bit from groupthink, but if there’s any description which applies to us it’s that we’re each independently minded bloggers – but we each come to the same conclusion.

I wanted to be sitting with my group at our own table, not at looong impersonal tables

I wanted to be sitting with my group at our own table, not at looong impersonal tables

There’s no intimacy. Instead, the three long tables give off the distinct impression that we’re at Hogwarts. The room is loud with the din of people speaking; there’s no music. Most of all, there’s absolutely no connection with Enlighten whatsoever. I understand the need to move us inside because of the potential of adverse weather conditions (even then…) but a good contingency plan should make for just as good an experience as originally planned – perhaps some of the OPH projections shown inside, for example.

I’m also not convinced that we were ever going to sit outside. There’s about 200 people in this room, and it seems hard to believe we could have fit on the bridges… I digress. Connected to social media as we are, this is the point where we start to learn just how good it is to be looking at OPH as opposed to being inside, and we’re collectively jealous.

Strange sorbet with Campari

Strange sorbet with Campari

The next dish isn’t matched with wine at all. Instead, we’re poured small glasses of Campari to be mixed with our palate cleansing sorbet. Notwithstanding that the palate cleanser is coming half way through the courses, it’s… well, intense is the only word for it. There’s grapefruit, sea salt and chilli and it’s hard to like it.

Dish three is cheese and honeycomb; cheese and honey works (I love baked camembert with honey, inspired by this post from Bizzy Lizzy) but I wouldn’t have ever imagined grated cheese (parmesan) covering teeny bits of honey.

Cheese and honey dessert

Cheese and honey dessert

It’s paired with a botrytis semillon – and the wine’s intended to match our next dish, too: a buttermilk icecream with mango and savoury charcoal.

Buttermilk icecream with mango

Buttermilk icecream with mango

I’m no fan of mango, so I can’t review this dish fairly.

It’s safe to say we’re left bemused… is that it? For $150, shared with 193 of our closest friends? Given it’s now dark and likely looks great, we ask whether we could go back to the rooftop again. It’s a no – the fact that we could get up there in the first place was unprecedented, and there’s no security available to keep an eye on us.

There are plenty of good intentions with the dinner, I enjoy some of the dishes, and the staff are professional and friendly. But it’s hard to recommend a four course dinner matched with three average wines for $150 in an Enlighten experience which simply had no connection with Enlighten.

Update, 20 March: In response to this, and another blogger’s post, the organisers have been in touch, and their response has been eminently professional. I am extremely impressed with their responsiveness and genuine attempts to remedy our concerns. It has gone a long way to restoring my faith in future functions here.

Date: Friday 28 February 2014

Where: Old Parliament House, Canberra

Cost: $150 per person (plus exorbitant Ticketek fee)

Staff pretentiousness: Low

Food creativity: 5 out of 10 (creative but not outstanding)

Worthwhile factor: Elements are worthwhile, but overall it’s barely worthwhile

Want more? The second Starlight dinner is tonight. Rachi has written a brilliant review (with great pics) which captures the feelings of the night. Other Enlighten program events are available here. As a comparison, see my review of the Members Guest Dining Experience at Parliament House last year for $90 ($120 this year for five courses).


13 Responses to “Enlighten: Starlight Dinner”

  1. Kel March 1, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

    Bit disappointing Tara 😦
    Your dining room with the loooong tables looked totally sterile. I would have hated it.
    Thanks for the review

  2. Tales of a Confectionist March 2, 2014 at 1:50 am #

    I was supposed to go to this but it clashed with two other things so I gave up my seat. My friends had to eat cheeseburgers afterwards because no one was full :/

  3. Susan March 2, 2014 at 10:50 am #

    I’m very glad I wasn’t there Tara, that’s a great shame. I hate seeing what the corporate world can do to local institutions. I hope you enjoyed the rest of enlighten though!

  4. dreamthinkplay March 2, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    Hello, I’m wondering if you would mind if we used the photo you took of Livia (the opera singer) for her website/portfolio? Sarah (proud family member…)

    • inthetaratory March 2, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

      Of course! (She was absolutely stunning!) I can send you the high res version if you like if you let me know your e-mail address?

  5. Kristen March 3, 2014 at 9:05 pm #

    I’m with the event’s caterers. Disappointed to hear this but appreciate the candid feedback. Would love to connect direct with you and your group of 7 to see how we can address and hopefully regain your confidence. Please let me know the best way to reach you.

  6. ladyjodie March 6, 2014 at 9:31 am #

    I was going to go along but im glad I didnt bother in the end. Such a shame as it could have been such a great event!

  7. Karrine Beasley March 9, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    Firstly, I had no idea there was a Canberra blogging community!?! I just found your blog and it’s a great. I’m a blogger living in Canberra too, though not writing about it so much. I’m off to check out your blog somemore 🙂

    • inthetaratory March 9, 2014 at 11:06 am #

      Thanks so much 🙂
      We are huge! There is a group called the Canberra Bloggers Collective on facebook – are you on it?

  8. whisperinggums March 11, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

    Hmmm, I’m rather glad we didn’t give this a go. Eating with large crowds in a noisy environment is no longer our thing. What is happening at OPH these days re catering? (You don’t HAVE to answer that, I can look it up!) It hasn’t been the same since Ginger Catering left. Last time I was there which was admittedly around a year ago, there was nothing much going on in terms of dining. Ginger Room used to be wonderful, and the Cafe in the House, particularly if it was gazebo weather, was generally good value too. I would love to see the courtyard and that gazebo open for dining business again.


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