Sam Vincent surveys a fresh batch of eateries run by inventive chefs for the country's most highly educated community.
I come from Canberra. Somebody had to.
Yes, I just paraphrased travel writer Bill Bryson's legendary opening lines of The Lost Continent (Bryson comes from Des Moines, Iowa). And while I like to think my hometown has more going for it than Bryson's, many seem to disagree. Whether in Australia or abroad, disclosing my provenance usually prompts guffaws, roundabout-related jeers and even heartfelt sympathy.
Lake Burley Griffin's beaches might not be as inviting as Sydney's and our live music scene isn't quite on par with Melbourne's, but it's time Canberra was acknowledged for something it is doing rather well - food.
There is a sophisticated dining scene worthy of a national capital, based on a source region with four distinct seasons, a world-class cool-climate wine district nearby and the collective palate of the country's most highly educated community.
As Canberra emerges from winter, here's a guide to the best new eateries to have opened since the last time you decided it wasn't worth pulling off the Monaro Highway for dinner on the way back from the snow.
There was a time when Canberra's centre resembled a kind of antipodean Pyongyang - brutalist low-rises the colour of soggy Weet-Bix, few decent dining options and near desertion after dark. That started to change midway through the past decade with the redevelopment of Bunda Street's retail strip and the lakeside NewActon precinct, where new apartments were followed by the devoutly organic Urban Food Store and Cafe and recently fire-gutted Parlour Wine Room.
The latest urban renaissance is occurring in the west of the central business district beside the Australian National University. At Two Before Ten, where a coat of arms-style logo of two crossed portafilters greets visitors, barista Sam Burns makes what I think is the best latte in Canberra. For a snack try the cider-poached pear and blue-cheese tart using ingredients entirely sourced from the region.
When I visit, Burns and owner Jarrod Deaton are playing with their new toy: a shiny Diedrich coffee roaster. "We hope to be serving our own blends by October," Burns says. A blackboard lists customer-proposed names for the new machine. The best so far? A cheeky take on New York rapper Ghostface Killah: "Roast Face Killah".
In the same building, Harvest is another new cafe dedicated to bean-based excellence. For lunch try Thirst Wine Bar and Eatery, a fusion restaurant matching street-style Thai cuisine with wines from the Canberra region and beyond. Staff recommend pairing favourites such as pad thai and green curry with local vineyard Alinga estate's riesling or an Alsatian gewurztraminer. I order the sweet and crunchy tamarind pork belly on rice noodles with a glass of feisty Galician albarino; the combination, strangely, works.
The best new restaurant in the central business district in my opinion is Dieci e Mezzo, where chef James Kidman conjures contemporary Italian magic. The Spartan setting of an office lobby is bland yet the menu is anything but: try the fried pig's head and trotter salad with quail eggs and salsa verde or the rich squid-ink risotto.
Two Before Ten and Harvest, 40 Marcus Clarke Street, Mon-Sat. Thirst Wine Bar and Eatery, 20 West Row, lunch Wed-Sat; dinner Mon-Sat, phone 6257 0700, see thirstwinebar.com.au. Dieci e Mezzo, corner Bunda and Mort streets, lunch Mon-Fri; dinner Mon-Sat, phone 6248 3142, see dieciemezzo.com.au.
Canberra's inner northern suburbs have long been home to unpretentious establishments serving good food and coffee, such as Ainslie's Pulp Kitchen, Tilley's Devine Cafe Gallery in Lyneham, and O'Connor's Flatheads restaurant. Fast-gentrifying Braddon has taken that tradition to a new level; Lonsdale Street's bike shops and camping stores now sharing the footpath with two exceptional food haunts.
Coffee comes with a shot of fun at Lonsdale Street Roasters, Canberra's favourite new cafe. The menu is written in children's colourful magnetic letters, the souvenir teaspoons look like they've been sourced from Vinnies and bikes hang from the roof. Oh, and the roasted-on-site coffee is delicious and the chorizo panini has a following. "We wanted to create somewhere that people both appreciate and aren't afraid to return to several times a day," co-owner Alastair Evans says. One only needs to come on a Saturday morning to see they've succeeded, when competition for outside tables can resemble seagulls fighting over chips.
Two doors down, step off gritty Lonsdale Street to the cosy world of Italian and Sons. The blonde pine walls evoke a Scandinavian forest but the menu is straight from a southern Italian nonna's memory: salt-cod fritters, woodfired pizza and focaccia smothered in rock salt and rosemary. Popular mains include slow-roasted porchetta and swordfish on a bed of stewed eggplant and pine nuts, while the wine list is a veritable vinicultural Giro d'Italia, with most regions of the country represented. Make sure you have room for the Ligurian honey panna cotta.
For bakery treats on this side of the lake try Knead, a new boulangerie/patisserie at Belconnen markets baking hearty quiche, decadent petit fours and croissants so buttery they seep through the paper bag they're served in.
Lonsdale Street Roasters, 3/7 Lonsdale Street, Mon-Sat. Italian and Sons, 7 Lonsdale Street, lunch Tues-Fri; dinner Mon-Sat, phone 6162 4888, see italianandsons.com.au. Knead Patisserie, Shop 18, Belconnen Markets, Lathlain Street, Wed-Sun.
If the inner north's restaurants and cafes are frequented by students and professionals, the inner south's clientele more closely resemble the stereotypical Canberran: bureaucrats, politicians, their advisors and their press-gallery critics. This is where Capital Hill's movers and shakers cut deals or ruin careers over warming wine and contemporary cuisine. But while Kingston's Kennedy Room is the politicos' bar of choice and nearby Silo is still the best bakery-cafe in town (though I'm biased as my family farm provides its organic figs and stone fruit), the southside's best new establishments are found in lesser-known quarters.
In leafy Yarralumla, Farmers Daughter is the newest addition to Canberra's coffee scene. Restored Singer sewing-machine tables are dotted about and complimentary coffee beans to nibble are fun touches to this chic cafe, where a breezy menu includes macarons from mother-and-son team Marilyn Chalkley and Owen Saddler (try the lavender and honey or salty caramel). A friend recently saw the Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, downing an espresso here - let's hope his recently operated-on ticker can handle Campos coffee.
Another new cafe is 3 Seeds at Fyshwick Markets. The deli-style cafe, serving light lunches including a superb smoked chicken and quince tart, is just one of the three "seeds"; the others are a gourmet shop and cooking school. "We offer classes on every style except Indian," co-owner Catherine Haskins says. Apparently lessons fill up within hours of being advertised.
One person you're unlikely to get a cooking lesson from is Sascha Brodbeck, the head burger-flipper at Brodburger. A Canberra institution parked in the shadow of the national institutions, exactly what makes Brodburger's burgers so tasty is a zealously guarded secret (try the mysteriously delicious vegie burger with haloumi and home-made aioli). Though Canberrans love the quaint red caravan Brodburger occupies, the ACT's city planners don't: a new location that better satisfies their aesthetic tastes has been identified in nearby Kingston, where the business will move "sometime" before summer.
Farmers Daughter, 27 Bentham Street, Mon-Sat. 3 Seeds, Fyshwick Markets, Mildura Street, cafe and gourmet shop Thurs-Sun; cooking school Wed and Thurs nights, Sat afternoon, phone 6295 7722, see 3seeds.com.au. Brodburger, Bowen Park, lunch Wed-Sun; dinner Tues-Sat, see brodburger.com.au.
Within 30 minutes' drive of Canberra are several eateries showcasing the chilly region's hottest produce: smoked trout, olives, charcuterie, truffles, cool-climate wines and juicy pears, apples and cherries. For 20 years Poachers Pantry in Hall has been making the capital region's best cured meats, while old favourites in the community of Gundaroo include upmarket Grazing restaurant and unpretentious Cork Street Cafe, the latter until recently the district's undisputed master of woodfired pizza.
That claim can now be disputed by Flint in the Vines, the new kid on the back blocks located on Shaw Vineyard Estate on the outskirts of Murrumbateman. If you're not tempted by the pear and gorgonzola pizza, chef Grant Kells also does an excellent black pudding, and rabbit and nut terrine. When available, local truffles can be sliced at your table over any dish for an additional $15, and Shaw's riesling is arguably the best of the local wines.
Closer to Canberra, Queanbeyan's Benedict House has served as boarding school and nunnery since being built in 1886 and is even said to have provided Ben Chifley with his name. "Chif" was a man of simple tastes but I'm sure he'd approve of the building's latest incarnation: a craft shop-cafe serving an old-fashioned high tea with antique crockery and three-tiered cake stands brimming with gorgonzola and caramelised onion tarts, stuffed roasted capsicum and fluffy chocolate meringues.
On the way back to Sydney, Grandma's Little Bakery is another great addition to the region's food scene, specialising in Mediterranean matriarch favourites such as burek and Israeli pita bread. And as it is located on a working olive grove, there's also a range of home-pressed virgin oil and various kinds of pickled olives.
Flint in the Vines, 34 Isabel Drive, Murrumbateman, lunch Thurs-Sun; dinner Thurs-Sat; breakfast Sun, phone 6227 5144, see flintinthevines.net.au. Benedict House Cafe, 39 Isabella Street, Queanbeyan, Wed-Sun, phone 6284 2868, see benedicthouse.com.au. Grandma's Little Bakery, 5796 Federal Highway, open seven days, phone 4848 0240, see grandmasbakery.com.au.
Canberra is 285 kilometres from Sydney's city centre via the Hume Highway, or about three hours' drive.
NewActon's stylish Diamant Hotel is a short walk from Canberra's best eateries and galleries. Art-themed double rooms cost from $190; phone 6262 8683, see 8hotels.com.
Floriade runs until October 16. This year's theme is food. See floriadeaustralia.com.au.