Two Canberra restaurants have made the Australian Financial Review’s Top 100, with perennial star Aubergine at Griffith Shops coming in at 89 and Hotel Hotel’s Monster Kitchen and Bar at 90.
The AFR said Ben Willis’s “highly crafted food with its cut-through flavours just gets better and better’’ at Aubergine, while Sean McConnell’s ‘something-for-everyone’ fun menu at Monster is “perfectly pitched to please”, from yabby jaffles with horseradish creme fraiche to octopus with chorizo, corn and black garlic.
“There’s a fun, communal, art scene vibe to the free-wheeling all-day restaurant at the cutting-edge Hotel Hotel,” it says.
The pair is in the van of a rising Canberra food scene that is part of general cool vibe about the capital.
Willis believes Canberra is on the rise in everybody’s mindset. “There are a lot of good creative young people out there,’’ he said. “There are a lot of cool creative things happening in every field. And it makes Canberra a more enjoyable place.’’
Willis tempers that creativity with respect for classical combinations and eschews the notion of innovation for its own sake.
“I think we’re a bit of hybrid in that regard, what we do is probably 50-50,’’ he said. “Some things are a little bit more innovative, maybe that’s where we try to find an ingredient that people haven’t seen, and do something different with it.’’
His recipe for success is deceptively simple – good professional team, small restaurant, with a focus on looking after customers but at the same time making it interesting.
As his advice to those coming through.
“Get the simple things right. Cooking is about making customers happy. Stick to the basics, that’s what you’re doing first and foremost,’’ he said.
Willis spends a lot of time finding the right ingredients, sourcing where he can from local growers.
When there is an abundance of a certain produce he’ll use it to good effect in his first or chef’s dish on Aubergine’s ffour-course menu that everybody has.
The menu itself remains flexible and attuned to the supply of seasonal ingredients.
Winter is one of Willis’s favourite times of the year, presenting the opportunity to try produce such as celtuce – lettuce on a stem that has crunchy nutty flavour, purple cauliflower, or romenesco (Roman cauliflower).
Willis has combined celtuce with citrus pomelo, parsley and capers, grilled warm salad alongside yellow-eyed mullet and mustard butter for his current chef’s dish.
He likes to introduce diners to lesser known and more sustainable species of fish.
But that first dish has got to be crowd pleaser. “Otherwise you’ve got one out of four that no one likes. If you think you’re a really clever chef that can come up with these wacky flavours or wacky combinations and force people to eat them and then they don’t enjoy it, there’s not much point in that.’’
Willis doesn’t let awards, hats (Aubergine has two) and ratings go to his head but he appreciates how they remind the public that “we are a good serious restaurant that likes to put out a good product.’’
But mostly it’s really positive for the staff, he said.
He also supports the region, hosting the first in Lake Crackenback Resort’s series of Regional Dinners at its Cuisine Restaurant over the 2017 Winter Season.
The degustation dinner served with matching wines from southern regional NSW is on Wednesday 26 July.
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