It’s not long after 6:00 pm and the 70s disco tunes are in full swing. Despite the early hour, the room is quickly filling with diners escaping the winter fog that’s winding its way through the courtyard garden outside.
We’re in NewActon, in the restaurant previously known as Morning Glory, and things are looking decidedly different from the last time we visited.
The dark wood and industrial steel have been replaced with a palette of white, burgundy and pink tones and light furniture. The old menu’s pan-Asian bent (pork belly and peppered plum sauce, Hainanese chicken wrap or xiu mai chicken and veal meatballs) has been updated with a list featuring the likes of roast chicken with spinach, confit garlic and artichoke, and lamb neck with braised leeks, sour cherries and tomatoes.
Although ILY is run by the team behind Morning Glory (and XO in Narrabundah), there’s a completely different vibe.
The latest incarnation of the venue tucked between Parlour and Bicicletta in the NewActon Pavilion is focused very much on “comfort food done well”, restaurant manager Kent Nhan tells us. Kent is a familiar face to fans of XO and the former Morning Glory. He’s always an upbeat, welcoming presence on the floor.
In this venture, he is supported by a kitchen team including new head chef Tim West, the latest from the kitchen of now-closed Bowral restaurant Biota Dining to head south-west (Biota sous chef Tim Witheradge has popped up as head chef at Lake George Winery’s Westering restaurant, while owner and founder James Viles recently signed up as executive chef with Canberra’s Harvac Group).
Tim also spent five years at the award-winning Esquire in Brisbane and did an internship at Noma Australia, the temporary outpost of the Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant known for its out-there offerings.
ILY is open for breakfast and lunch from Monday to Sunday and dinner from Thursday to Saturday, and in the interests of thorough research, we’ve been in for both brunch and dinner over the past few days. We’re frequent visitors to the Palace Cinema just across the road in the Nishi building and regard any new dining spot in the precinct with interest.
Tonight it’s a mostly older crowd (perhaps it’s our early booking; perhaps like us they’re popping in for a meal before a movie) and the mood is relaxed and convivial.
The menu, Kent tells us, is designed to share, with smaller, starter-style dishes at the top, larger plates further down, and a shortlist of desserts completing the one-page carte.
We opt for sashimi with apple, alfalfa and perilla, as well as eryngii mushroom with cauliflower and leek, followed by pork loin with mushroom, celeriac and juniper glaze, and flounder with green pepper beurre blanc.
Suggested accompaniments are listed below each item, but you can mix and match them with whichever mains you choose. We order the confit pumpkin with grain salad (recommended as a side dish for the pork) and the snake beans with almonds (listed as a good match with a roast chicken dish we’re committed to trying next time).
The kingfish sashimi arrives with a covering of alfalfa and perilla – the aniseedy flavour of the latter making itself known. It’s a light and delicate dish but could do with a touch of citrus. My favourite of the two starters is the mushrooms. Eryngiis are a larger than usual oyster mushroom and large discs of it have been arranged over a tasty cauliflower puree and scattered with crisply fried leek. A lovely, veggie version of the more often seen scallop on cauliflower puree.
Of the mains, I definitely favour the flounder – not a fish we often buy or cook with or see on restaurant menus. It arrives on the bone and smothered with buttery green pepper sauce – the flesh perfectly cooked and tender. It hits the ‘comfort food’ spot nicely, though my husband reckons there could have been a hint more of the green pepper in the sauce. The pork loin is also beautifully cooked, but again could have done with a bit more of the flavour from the juniper listed in the menu description.
Continuing the comfort theme, we finish off with a date and coffee Catalan (a rich and custardy crème-brulee-style pudding with a crisp toffee coating) and a chocolate mousse which is given its own texture boost with the inclusion of a few strategically placed pieces of honeycomb.
We’re already fans of the sweets at ILY. During our brunch visit, it was almost a struggle to the death to get the last piece of jam doughnut, which we’d foolishly decided to share rather than order one apiece.
The doughnut was housed with other cakes and pastries in a display cabinet cunningly placed at the entrance of the restaurant to grab the early attention of the sweet-tooth-afflicted.
During that brunch, my attention was also grabbed by the Breakfast Gnocchi, which comes with bacon, pea, pecorino, chive and poached egg. I’m up for any opportunity to eat gnocchi at breakfast time, and this was a fantastic version of an old favourite.
Chicken fattoush (spiced roast chicken with pita, herbs, cucumber, tomato, lettuce and sumac) with a side dish of halloumi kept my husband equally happy.
As the cool kids all know, ILY is the acronym for I Love You, and there is much to love about this latest offering from the XO team. A focus on local produce, simple, home-spun dishes and the same friendly and hospitable service the group has become known for makes for a warm welcome and a good night (or morning) out in the capital of cool.
ILY is located in the NewActon Pavilion, 2/15 Edinburgh Avenue, Canberra. It’s open from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm Monday to Sunday and from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm Thursday to Saturday.