The Weekend Australian’s recent supplement “Hot 50 Restaurants” only mentioned one restaurant in Canberra – The Artisan in Narrabundah. It’s apparently been open for a couple of years, but as we hadn’t heard of it we decided to give it a try last Thursday evening with a couple of friends.
The long narrow restaurant with a bar running down one side was almost full when we arrived. We found the simple decor, soft lighting and neutral colours very welcoming. Owners David Black and Sam McGeechan describe their style as classical French, but having lived in Paris for four years and spent a couple of weeks there most summers I think it leans more towards modern Australian.
Our waiter was friendly, efficient, but non-intrusive – the way a good waiter should be. I once sat next to André Cointreau at a lunch in Paris. He started off with the Cordon Bleu in Paris and now owns over 40 cooking schools around the world, including in Sydney. He surprised me when he said that the centre of his culinary world used to be Paris, but now it’s Australia, because Australian chefs are more flexible. He said “If you say to a French chef, let’s make a tandoori pizza or maybe add some ginger to a classic french cassoulet he will say Ah non, ce n’est pas possible!” But if you ask an Australian chef he will say why not, let’s give it a try. If it works that’s great and if it doesn’t you have lost nothing. He then went on to say that his only criticism of Australian restaurants was over-friendly waiters who want to tell you their life story and become your best friend over dinner. While I think this situation has improved since – we’re going back 10 years – I have come across the sort of waiters he was describing!!
Each dish at the Artisan has two wine suggestions you can order by the glass, so we decided to follow that route. I began with maple-brushed pork belly braised with pear cider and served with witlof and hazelnuts. It was crispy on top but meltingly juicy underneath, just as pork belly should be. My husband had the pan-seared scallops with cauliflower purée, basil oil and crisp spec. When I ask for a taste and get the tiniest of mouthfuls I know something is really good! Jane had the oysters, which she said were excellent and Peter had the orange and fennel glazed duck confit with leek, parsnips and beetroot. Our waiter cleared away four very empty plates.
The presention of each dish is five star and as our main courses were placed on the table we took a moment to admire each other’s plates. I had a fillet steak with butter and port jus, cooked to perfection as I like it, medium-rare, and served with a potato soufflé and tiny green beans tied into a bundle with a piece of crispy pancetta. Matthew had coq au vin with jerusalem artichokes, shallots and silverbeet. We have jerusalem artichokes in our veggie garden and as soon as I saw them on the menu I knew what he would order. Peter had the pan-fried snapper served with potatoes, fennel, watercress and sauce gribiche and Jane had the spanner crab and saffron tortellini with lobster and chive beure blanc, which the Weekend Australian described as “must eat”, so she did and she wasn’t disappointed.
We decided to share two desserts between four and chose the bitter chocolate tart with mandarin sorbet and blackberry jam-filled doughnuts with crème chantilly and macadamias. The tart hit the spot for the chocolate fans and the tiny crisp doughnuts, which were an unusual find on a restaurant menu were delicious. They took me back to school days when a local bakery delivered jam doughnuts to be sold at play time every Tuesday and Thursday. They were home-made, crispy and filled with real raspberry jam. If you didn’t have any money, you simply had to beg, borrow or steal.
We were being abstemious (it being a week night) and only had one glass of wine each and we didn’t stay for coffee. The bill came to about $70 a head, including a tip.
When four people order different starters and mains and everyone is full of praise you know you’ve found somewhere good. We will definitely be going back.