Restaurant Reviews

Review: where there's smoke, there's fire at Brisbane restaurant Agnes

Chef Ben Williamson is heating up the city's dining scene once again, with flame- and smoke-kissed dishes that are innovative without being intimidating.

By Sarah Bristow
Seasonal produce on the hanging racks and charcoal pits in the Agnes kitchen.
Ben Williamson is a man blessed with more than his fair share of patience. It's been nearly two years since the star chef of Brisbane's Gerard's Bistro announced plans for an ambitious fire-focused foray with the team behind Same Same and Hôntô. Hurdle after hurdle (from building approvals to a pandemic) saw Agnes's debut delayed until August 2020. But good things come to those who wait – the result of a marathon hospitality effort is a multi-level Fortitude Valley eatery that lives up to the hype.
Unusually for a Queensland restaurant, Agnes is a space that's not light and bright, but dark and suave. Like a rather moody trifle, it comprises a trio of tiers – on entry you'll greet the main restaurant, a 66-seater equipped with communal tables focused around the kitchen. Downstairs sits a sleek wine bar, while above resides the outdoor rooftop courtyard – ideal for balmy Brisbane evenings.
The wine bar at Agnes. Photo: David Chatfield
As for the fare, Agnes is a celebration of food over fire which forgoes gas and electricity for ingredients kissed by smoke and flames. Williamson has wholeheartedly embraced wood-fired cooking, using a motley crew of hardwoods (from cherry to ironbark) across a duo of charcoal pits and wrought-iron hanging racks. The result is dishes that are innovative but not intimidating, with a stripped-back approach that interweaves French, Japanese and Middle Eastern flavours.
An assortment of snacks, entrées, mains and desserts forms the menu. Snacks are bite-sized; the scarlet prawn doughnut a non-negotiable. A heavenly woodfired cabbage topped with rye koji butter sauce and crunchy puffed brown rice leads the charge with smaller plates, followed closely by tender octopus with black lemon, almond and garlic shoots.
Bonito sandwiches with white 'nduja and strawberry salsa. Photo: David Chatfield
While you can gorge yourself silly on snack plates alone, the mains deserve some attention. Prices surge in this section but dishes are designed to share and portions are generous. Tender smoked lamb neck comes accompanied by zesty pickles, ancho mole and flatbread, while the aged duck is served with cumquats and braised greens. There are also two aged steaks for the carnivores, including a 260-day aged wagyu, plated with smoked mandarin kanzuri.

A balanced dessert list promises to satisfy sweet tooths. Order the Basque cheesecake if it's on the menu (which, devastatingly, it's not always). Its competitor, the smoked sticky date, falls short – while refreshingly light, it's served lukewarm.
A global array of wines (including natural) sit alongside smoke-tinged cocktails. Spirit enthusiasts will be pleased that this lengthy list of specialty spirits is set to grow, with Agnes toying with plans to develop a distillery on site.
Ongoing restrictions have made booking a table at Agnes tricky. It may take weeks to get in but the wait is worth it.