When Dash Rumble and Ross McQuinn came back from Sydney, they set themselves a big goal.
“We wanted to open a restaurant that would be good for Canberra, but also a good restaurant for Australia,” says Dash. It worked: Pilot in Ainslie has just been named the ACT’s best restaurant in the highly anticipated Australian Gourmet Traveller annual awards.
Not that Dash and Ross were expecting anything of the sort. Hoping for a top 80 spot after the magazine suggested they should be watching the awards, they were staggered to find themselves in the running for best restaurant in the country.
The judges called Pilot “confident, playful and polished”, with harmonious floor work, a smooth and pleasurable dining experience and excellent food on the degustation menu delivered by chef Mal Hanslow and his kitchen team.
It’s a serious achievement for a suburban restaurant that sits happily at the Ainslie shops on a site renowned for good food.
“We just wanted a place where people can feel comfortable but are excited by the food and drink,” Dash says. The focus is on the local and the handcrafted – excellence without pomposity.
That might mean a beautifully arranged savoury tart made with smoked potato from Ingelara, south of Canberra, a sour cream pastry and taramasalata, or egg drop soup, made with pickled cloud ears, fried enokis, mackerel floss and yuzu kosho oil sitting in a supreme chicken broth.
During lockdown, Pilot produced snack packs – lamb koftas, zucchini thyme and walnut salad, kale and smoked potato gratin and flatbreads, or ma po tofu followed by pork empanadas and chocolate cake with honeycomb.
Hanslow and his sous chef, Barry Burger, are “completely” in charge of the menu, which aims to deliver dishes that are nostalgic but presented in quite a simple way, with a subtle complexity to the flavours.
Dash and Mal worked at 86 in Braddon before venturing to Sydney. Both assembled at a list of impressive Sydney diners – Momofoku Seiobo, the Fish Butchery, Oscillate Wildly and Automata.
“We’d always lived in Canberra, and we also saw the opportunity for growth. The rent is cheaper than Sydney or Melbourne, we liked the site, and it all made sense,” she says of the decision to open in Ainslie.
“We know lots of people here, and we wanted to be a part of it as when the scene changes and grows.”
Pilot was open for just over a year when the first lockdown hit. It was scary, but the team took the chance to change from a la carte to a degustation menu that also provided more room for experimentation. It worked, but Dash is relieved to have the doors open and be serving people again.
Their crowd is diverse – a young crew brings in younger foodies but also families with older children who are there for special celebrations. On Saturday nights when travel was possible, up to 80 per cent of the crowd could be from interstate, travelling to Canberra to catch a big show at the National Gallery and browse the Capital region’s vineyards.
“It’s great to be acknowledged,” Dash says of the award. “I feel really happy for the team, to have their hard work noticed and celebrated.
“For us as a business, you look and think, what will that change? We were checking emails all night, it was a stream of constant bookings and requests, so the award really helps get our name and brand out there. And if they need an excuse to make a booking, well, this is it!”
Pilot is at Shop 5/6, 1 Wakefield Gardens, Ainslie Shops.