The small town of Braidwood in the NSW Southern Tablelands, less than an hour’s drive from Canberra, is not just a pretty face. A burgeoning food scene has cool cafes and eclectic restaurants sitting side by side with artisan bakeries and well-stocked providores. We checked out some of Braidwood’s gourmet highlights.
Breakfast at the Albion Café
At the Albion Café, housed in a beautiful state heritage-listed building on Braidwood’s main street, owners Bridgette and Brendan Sly have sustainability down pat – sourcing locally grown, seasonal ingredients and letting the flavours shine.
But the real magic lies in Bridgette’s food aesthetic, honed over the years as a chef in high-end Melbourne restaurants and built upon as the couple collected ideas and inspiration when they packed in their day jobs and travelled around Australia for a couple of years.
For breakfast this morning we’ve ordered the Albion’s version of avocado on toast, plus a granola and yoghurt bowl, along with coffees made with beans sourced from Canberra’s Lonsdale Street Roasters.
It’s only 8:00 am and already the dining room designed by architect Matt Darwon, responsible for some of Sydney’s most identifiable restaurant interiors, is filling up.
When the food arrives, it’s immediately obvious why. The avocado on toasted sourdough is elevated above and beyond the sum of its parts by adding a layer of homemade zucchini and sweet mustard pickle. It is further enhanced with Persian fetta and fresh dill. It is hands down the best version of avocado on toast I’ve ever eaten.
The toasted maple and walnut granola is another thing of beauty, served with a generous amount of local rhubarb and raspberry compote, and topped with Greek yoghurt and slices of banana and strawberries. A scattering of fresh mint leaves completes this perfectly balanced dish.
When Bridgette and Brendan decided to hang up the mozzie net and swag and settle down to raise their now nine-year-old son Lyall somewhere near both sets of grandparents, they fell in love with the Albion, and Braidwood, and set about combining their passion for food with raising a family.
“We just wanted to do the food we love and to create a really relaxed atmosphere that people could enjoy,” says Brendan, who adds that they’ve seen Braidwood morph into a real foodie town over the years. The Albion, with its exceptional food and admirable ethos of supporting those on their doorstep, has likely played a big part in the town’s transformation.
It’s a brave person who asks Mark Barrington for tomato sauce. Such is the baker’s dedication to getting his handmade pies and sausage rolls just right that anything that threatens to adulterate the flavours just won’t do.
“It’s become a bit of a sport among high school students to ask for sauce,” says the owner of Dojo Bread, which produces a range of artisan products including breads, pastries, cakes and slices in a small converted cottage tucked down a laneway off the main street. Despite having been called “un-Australian” on more than one occasion for his stance on this most Aussie of condiments, it’s clear Mark’s business hasn’t suffered. A steady stream of customers arrives to purchase items ranging from bagels and sourdough loaves to German and Danish-style breads, all made in the small kitchen to the rear of the shop that Mark runs with his partner, Linda Bunn.
Pies in four flavours (lamb and fenugreek, beef in red wine, chilli lime and chicken, and either ratatouille in summer or mushroom ragout in winter) are sold alongside sausage rolls crafted from a perfect balance of pork and veal mince to get “the fat content right” says Mark. Then there is the small selection of sweets, including a very moreish salted caramel slice made by Linda.
“We try to keep all our recipes simple, and the flavours are beautiful because of it,” says Mark, who grew up in the UK and developed a love for traditional northern European breads from an early age. He hands me a dense rye sourdough loaf flecked with oats and linseed.
“We call it the brick as it has some heft,” Mark says. Heaven help the poor soul who asks for a squeeze pack of ketchup while he’s holding one of these little beauties.
A Himalayan restaurant called Smokey Horse, that doubles as a live music venue and will soon branch out into micro-brewing, is among the more out-there offerings in Braidwood. But my fears of a theme park experience evaporate when owner Karuna Bajracharya introduces me to the venue he and his wife, also named Karuna, opened three years ago.
The split-level space is, in turn, a restaurant serving Himalayan family-style food (Kurana is half Nepali and half Australian; his wife half Bhutanese and half Nepali) and a place for established and up-and-coming musicians to perform at weekends.
“Our regular Sunday sessions with improvised jamming are one of the most popular things to do locally,” says Karuna, who plans to cement Smokey Horse’s reputation as a premium live music venue with live-streamed events and a Smokey Horse Live YouTube channel.
Karuna, who has lived in Braidwood for 30 years, does the cooking while juggling the music production side of things, and he focuses on food from the northeast of India, bordering Bhutan.
“That’s where my mother-in-law’s side of the family is from, and the food is very different from the rest of India. Everything is boiled, and they don’t use much oil,” he says.
The famous Nepali Momo dumplings are front and centre on the menu and it’s hard to choose which we love best – the vegan version (packed with shiitake mushrooms, vermicelli and a variety of veggies) or the pork, flavoured with a mix of spices including coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Each serve of six dumplings comes with dahl, beans, rice and spicy tomato relish.
“We’ve taught all our staff to make Momos because you can never make enough. It’s a great way to share your culture, and your food,” says Karuna, who adds that he’s working on getting the micro-brewery up and running at the venue this year … so there’s even more reason to visit.
Garanvale Woolshed Italian Restaurant
There are many things to be mindful of when dealing with Italian Nonnas. Among the most pressing is ensuring you heed their advice about loosening your belt before sitting down to eat. And never, ever, leave anything on the plate.
The latter is easier said than done at Garanvale Woolshed Italian Restaurant & Function Centre, where we’re making our way through enormous portions of tagliatelle con gamberi and chicken bella vista, drenched in a deliciously creamy tomato sauce that Rosa – Calabrian-born mum of owner Peter Tilocca – has prepared in the kitchen that has been her domain since Peter bought the restaurant in 2016.
Rosa is a force of nature, turning out countless plates of pasta and traditional Italian mains and desserts while Peter manages the pizza production line, dropping toppings onto homemade dough before depositing the pizzas into the woodfired oven he built with his Sardinian-born dad Gavin. At temperatures nearing 400 degrees, the pizzas are ready after little more than a minute. Peter’s wife, Jade, keeps things on an even keel front of house.
Housed inside an old shearing shed, Garanvale’s industrial past is celebrated in the vintage farm machinery in the gardens, and memorabilia ranging from agricultural show certificates dating back to 1938, newspaper clippings and an invitation to a 1958 shearing and boxing contest.
Regulars perch on bar stools (one of them topped with a saddle) to shoot the breeze with Peter as he preps the pizzas, and one lucky youngster is invited in for a crash course in pizza making. He’s got a grin from ear to ear as he serves his family the pizza he made himself.
However, our main focus is on finishing Rosa’s bruschetta (on a pizza base), grilled octopus on risotto, and the pasta and chicken dishes. We’re enjoying every one of them, but the servings are so generous we’re utterly defeated. We enthusiastically accept the offer of a doggy bag. Not only have we avoided offending the lovely Rosa by leaving anything on the plate, but we get a second chance to tuck into her home-cooked food. Things don’t get much better than that.
Vanilla at Altenburg
A word of warning to those who began the new year intending to shed a few COVID-kilos. Make eye contact with the cakes on display at Vanilla at Altenburg and your resolve will dissolve faster than a piece of fairy floss on a five-year-old’s tongue. The impressive line-up includes home-baked orange, cardamom and almond cake; a pear, date and ginger version; as well as banana and fig bread, blueberry muffins and a rhubarb and coconut loaf. Cooling on a bench just behind the display are scones fresh out of the oven. As I ponder my choices, owner and chef Vanessa Bunn adds a still-warm chai masala carrot cake to the mix, further confusing the issue.
Vanessa opened her café in the pretty garden courtyard behind Altenburg Gallery at the end of October last year, after her catering business struggled due to the pandemic. She was more than familiar with the location, which had long operated as a cafe – in fact, she used to work there when she was still at school.
“It’s such a lovely little space,” says Vanessa, who from Wednesday to Sunday serves breakfasts and lunches ranging from spicy slow-cooked beans with poached eggs, avocado, rocket and jalapeno, to Turkish bread toasties. She’s also open for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.
I finally make a decision and order a slice of the chai masala carrot cake. It comes with a serve of cream and is a wonderfully spicy and moist creation that feels a bit like tucking into a lighter version of a Christmas pud. I silently congratulate myself on an excellent choice, and on choosing something so packed with fruit and veg. That’s got to be within the diet guidelines, surely?
There’s a chill wind but that hasn’t stopped the courtyard at Provisions Deli & Grocery on the corner of Wallace and Lascelles streets filling up with patrons. They’re here for the pancakes or, as our host Paloma Marquez tells us, the galettes (savoury) and the crepes (sweet). Originally from Brittany in the north-west of France, famed for its buckwheat pancakes, Paloma opened the creperie with her Tahitian husband Stephane Yau late last year. It’s the newest offering from the popular Provisions gourmet deli and pantry which sells artisan produce ranging from cheeses and charcuterie to pantry staples, including products from several local makers.
Paloma says many make the mistake of ordering galettes without leaving room for something sweet. We’re not falling into that trap, and order a mushroom galette to share, followed by one of the weekly crepe specials. Stephane’s crisp mushroom galette, its edges neatly folded into the middle, is bolstered with a scattering of ham and cheese and topped with an egg and a green salad garnish. We make short work of it. My favourite of the two, though, is the crepe, drenched in maple syrup and scattered with crushed macadamia praline, accompanied by a scoop of salted caramel gelato.
Scooping up the last few pieces of praline, we begin to contemplate the drive home to Canberra. It couldn’t be a sweeter ending to a thoroughly enjoyable weekend in Braidwood.
For more ideas to explore the Treasure Trail – Braidwood, Bungendore & Queanbeyan – see visitqueanbeyanpalerang.com.au.