It’s not easy to strike the balance between special occasion restaurant and beloved local eatery but under the guidance of international chef and owner Damian Brabender it’s a balance that OTIS Dining Hall in Kingston seems to be getting right.
Brabender might even be in danger of being labelled the nicest guy in the Canberra food scene. He’s brought it all on himself, though, with his habit of wandering out of the kitchen to deliver dishes directly to tables, chat casually with guests, and pour a complimentary drink or two.
Despite its warm woody interior, the feeling at OTIS is surprising light and airy, thanks in no small part to the clever placement of a number of large mirrors and the big bright windows looking out onto leafy Jardine Street.
Take a closer look inside and you’ll find a number of endearing and whimsical touches, hints of the history of the hall that formerly housed the Belgian Beer Bar – from the golden glowing lamps, to the long wooden tables, booth-style seating and even coat hooks hanging beneath each light.
This attention to detail is apparent in the service as well. While warm and friendly, a number of the staff are clearly well trained in silver service.
As my partner and I slid into the soft suede seats on a typically bustling, summery Friday night, we noted that despite the wide open space and potentially hazardous acoustics there was a pleasant level of chatter. We were able to talk privately and without raised voices. No wonder it’s favoured by a regular cast of politicians, advisers and business people.
The whimsy continues when our meal begins. The Daily Amuse Plate is a selection of amuse-bouches including the tasty and hearty spring arancini balls, and crowd-pleasing pork bites, piled high with crunchy papaya slaw, nhamjim and chilli.
A little more adventurous are the crunchy pickled baby cucumbers topped with the addictive Japanese togarashi seasoning and beef scratchings sprinkled with paprika.
Next we sample OTIS’s delicious gnocchi, which comes bathed in a lovely, nutty, buttery sauce, with corn kernels for sweetness and texture and miso providing a toasty, mouth-watering umami.
The large parcels of pasta that make up the ravioli are perfectly formed and beautiful. A rich egg yolk oozes from the centre and the addition of a crunchy amaretti biscuit crumble provides a sweetish, marzipan edge on the burnt butter and sage sauce.
Every restaurant tends to have its own must-have dish and OTIS has two. The first of these arrives next, and given Brabender knew he wanted to create a good place for a steak dinner, it’s little surprise his pepper steak has become rather famous.
This is an old favourite done exceptionally well, key to which is the high-quality cut of fillet steak. As Brabender says, creating an outstanding dish is easy when “the cow has done all the work”.
The accompanying sauce of brandy jus and silkwood pepper is a wonderful example of its type: smoky, sweet and tangy at the same time. It’s easy to believe that some regulars come to OTIS every week just for their fix of this dish.
Alongside the star of the show, we’re presented with crispy duck fat potatoes, adorned with a dollop of garlic and lemon sauce. A bright, crunchy garden salad with the sharpness of rocket and bitter radicchio is cool, fresh and perfectly placed to offset the richness of the other dishes.
The crème caramel is the other must-try on the menu. After the mains are cleared, Brabender visits our table to provide us with golden-toned spoons – “Decadent cutlery for a decadent dessert”. Much like its predecessor, the final course is a familiar classic that’s been prepared with a sophisticated level of care and attention. The dark caramel is bitter, as it should be, rather than sickly sweet; the texture is a silky, rich, creamy perfection; and it’s complemented by a small dish of smoky red gum salt that you can add as you please.
It would be understandable if the other featured dessert, the tiramisu, was overshadowed by its French cousin. But it’s very much a worthy choice in its own right. With Highgate Coffee bought from just over the road and cream sourced from a local dairy producer, it is at once hearty but light, familiar but grandiose, filling but incredibly moreish.
Our meal finishes with a try of one of OTIS’s range of house-made cocktails, which comes in a stylish customised bottle. We enjoy the Negroni, but there’s also the Manhattan, oold Fashioned, even a Black Truffle Martini. As Brabender pours our drink, he points out that the cocktails – like the food – are prepared by the restaurant’s qualified chefs, again highlighting the focus on consistency and quality.
I always think a good restaurant leaves you feeling full and happy. And overall, OTIS feels exactly like I suspect Brabender hopes it would: like a good place to eat that isn’t trying too hard to impress.
It has all the touches of a fine restaurant, without compromising on the warm and welcoming. It’s clear the team knows what they wanted the restaurant to be and aren’t messing about trying to be anything else.
In my experience, it’s very deserving of its reputation as “the five-star local”.