Monster Kitchen and Bar, New Acton

9 Sep

I don’t often associate restaurants attached to hotels with award-winning experiences, but Monster Kitchen and Bar in the Nishi building – and part of Hotel Hotel – has been scooping awards since its official opening a few months back – and yet has just a 52% approval on Urbanspoon (at the time of writing). At a catch up with a group of old friends on a cool Saturday in August, I put it to the test.

What strikes me about Monster is that it’s a very open setting. It’s difficult to know where the restaurant starts and ends, so smooth is the connection between it and the hotel’s lobby, not aided by the people walking in and out of the restaurant as they get to other spaces in the Nishi building. On a busy day I’m not sure how you’d ever expect to be noticed, but fortunately we’ve had a table booked for weeks and I spot my companions, so I don’t find out for myself.

Award-winning Nishi building

Our waiter delivers the menus, and explains how the menu works. Like many of the trendier restaurants around Canberra, it’s a sharing menu and he suggests that for the six of us, we order at least nine dishes. We think of his advice as we look over the menu.

Ah, the menu. There are a few difficulties with it – but I think I can sum them up in that it’s simply rather inaccessible. What is baccalau churros? Churros are a Spanish donut to me, and a companion tells me baccalau is a fish. And what’s bagna cauda? (A hot soup.) Katsuobushi? (Dried tuna.) Mahi mahi? (Dophinfish.) Kibbeh nayeh? (Raw minced beef.) I thought I had some understanding of food, but I feel like I’m reading a foreign language menu – or at least one that deserves its own glossary.

Once we’ve googled the more interesting words on the menu to our hearts’ content and think we have a sufficient understanding (and I’ve tried to help above!), the next is narrowing down our choices. The prices vary from $14 to $29 per dish, and it’s difficult to know if the price equates to dish size of how exotic the dish might be.

We settle on six, thinking we can always order more. It’s hard to catch the eye of a waiter, and even when I do, I then have to physically motion that we’re ready to order before he moves from his perch. We’re warned against just the six dishes but we hold our ground, and our waiter takes our entire table’s drink and food orders without writing anything down; to his credit, there’s not one omission or confusion in what he brings out.

With our drinks we’re served tasty, warm bread – and by warm I mean pulled straight from the oven. It’s delicious.

I haven’t been able to go past the blueberry and honey smoothie, $8, but on first taste it’s got me reaching for the menu for another drink. While a beautiful colour, one-third of the glass is froth, it’s luke-warm, and the milkiness drowns the other flavours.

Mostly froth blueberry and honey smoothie

See what I mean?

I’m happy to say it gets better from here. I’ve had the labneh a few times before Monster was called Monster, and it’s as divine as ever: smooth and tart, with the right amount of textures sprinkled in with the dukkah and nuts (and it’s one of the cheaper share dishes, at $14).

Delicious labneh

It turns out that baccalau is a skinny fish, perfect for coating in a batter and frying like a churros. It comes with lemon and a sweet aioli. Again, this is a great tasting dish, but it’s difficult to know whether we’re tasting batter or fish. Either way, I’d order it again.

Baccalau churros

Fried cauliflower ($17)

The fried cauliflower is served with yoghurt and tahini, but the overwhelming but not unwelcome flavour that strikes me is pepper. Like the dishes that preceded it, it’s moreish – and its size leaves me wanting more.

Wagyu flank

Pulled lamb shoulder (underneath the vine leaves!)

The wagyu flank, duck breast (not pictured) and pulled lamb shoulder are among the more expensive dishes (and all equally excellent in terms of flavour and texture), but the duck breast and wagyu flank are small, and despite what the menu says, aren’t what I’d describe as suitable for sharing among a group bigger than two or three at a stretch.

Indeed, while we do each get enough to eat from each plate, some of the dishes don’t seem made for sharing; we’re tasked ourselves with determining portion sizes, or where they’re decided for us, there’s not always enough for six people.

At the same time, this is truly a menu where you’re expected to dip in and try as much as you can fit in – the beauty lies in the robust flavours in just a few mouthfuls of a dish, and how they match with another dish, rather than overwhelming your palate with a whole plate of something. But, the suggestion of nine dishes for a table of six is too much, and a little off-putting; I’d suggest that instead of suggesting numbers, the staff invest in helping guests and tables of any size construct a meal of these sharing dishes which can be built on, and added to if the diners are wanting more.

I do like the experience. We all do. The food is, after all, very good. But the approach to the menu and ordering is, plainly, riddlesome. While well-intentioned, I do think the waitstaff need a more sophisticated approach – without being confusing – to guide diners through ordering, just like a menu shouldn’t need to have every second word explained. This is food which should be celebrated; Monster just needs to work on helping people access the best experience.

Date: Saturday, 9 August 2014

Where: Hotel Hotel, Nishi Building, New Acton

Cost: About $45 each, including six shared plates and wine

Value for money: Overall? Medium

Worthwhile factor: Worthwhile. I’ll come back – and I think it’s easier to come back now I know how it all works.

Want more? Monster Kitchen and Bar is open every day from 6.30am to 1am. You can access the menu here.

Monster Kitchen and Bar on Urbanspoon






6 Responses to “Monster Kitchen and Bar, New Acton”

  1. whisperinggums September 9, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    Thanks for this review Tara. I nearly went there with friends a couple of weeks ago but we turned up on spec – and it was booked out. I must say I wasn’t sorry – it didn’t look at all like a relaxing venue. The hustle and bustle was a bit overwhelming. We ended up at Parlour Room which managed to find us a reasonably quiet table in a corner. That was lovely.

    I agree, from my own recent experiences that these shared menus are odd with some dishes that seem clearly suited to sharing and some not. I really do think they need think that through. And, like you, I feel I’m pretty good on food terms but suddenly there’s a whole new ballgame out there. The baccalau intrigues me – That is one I thought I recognised in that I thought I knew it as a Portuguese salt cod usually served in a chunky piece. Ah, but yes, I have seen it served fish cake style. Maybe that’s what they did to create their churros? I’m also very familiar with Mahi Mahi as it one one of our favourite fishes to eat when we lived in California – one of the dishes that turned me back onto fish. I think the reason for these new terms might be because there’s a bit of a swing back to European food from the Asian fusion food of the last decade or so. Do you think?

    But, really, thank heavens for smart phones and tablets these days when you are dealing with menus, eh.

  2. Erin September 9, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    Can’t say I was overly impressed with Monster, to be honest. The layout really threw me and the awkwardness of the space made me feel uncomfortable. On my second visit we got sat on stools and it made us want to finish our food and GTFO (quite handy considering we had a film to see downstairs). The food is really good, but I like the full experience of a meal – including the environment.

  3. Tales of a Confectionist September 10, 2014 at 7:48 am #

    Great photos as always. I left Monster hungry but I feared if I ordered more it would have required me to order double of my already expensive meal

  4. The Political ACT September 12, 2014 at 10:09 am #

    I agree with that review. We went for a work breakfast meeting there a few weeks ago, the food was good, the place is visually appealing but the menu left us all a bit confused. I ended up with something resembling bacon and eggs on toast but I wouldn’t have guessed it from the menu.

  5. Manisha B September 12, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    Thanks for your review, Tara. I’m glad you enjoyed your experience at Monster. However I beg to differ with my experience at Monster. I was really looking forward to trying out their food and so I organised a brunch with a large group of friends one Sunday. We received a warm welcome by the staff who politely explained their menu to us.
    Once we were ready with our orders, the waiter came to take our orders. That’s where it all began. He was clearly not prepared to take so many orders and muddled up all our orders. Each one of them turned out to be different from what we had asked. That, after making us wait over 40 minutes and giving us a rude response when questioned. Some of us had ordered something similar to bacon and eggs on toast but with a fancy name. They were given just bacon and eggs on toast and were informed that they were not specific which dish they had asked for. To top that all, our bill consisted of $40 worth of food items we had not ordered for, only inquired about. The manager did very kindly take them off the bill when we brought it to his notice. But it left us all disappointed.
    While the food and ambience are to my liking, I feel the place could use more wait staff so that there is no pressure on the few staff members to deliver on time, without comprimising their patience.

  6. Greg L September 15, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

    Last time I was there, my date and I bonded over our embarrassingly scant knowledge of rice varieties, fish names and Middle Eastern spices. We basically had to use Google to translate at least one key word in each menu item.

    Next time, I might ask them for an English menu.

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