James Mussillon was probably channelling former boss Marco Pierre White in substance, not style, when he introduced Canberrans to Michelin star-style fine dining. A couple of decades on, a sleeker and more understated Aubergine still attracts accolades. After taking the helm in 2008, Ben Willis has maintained a steady course and strong vision through waves of molecular gastronomy and paddock-to-plate trends. Desserts showcase his instinct for edgy flavour combinations and judicious application of technique. A signature dish of brown butter ice-cream, for instance, arrives encircled by layers of almond praline and frozen lemon verbena milk made with liquid nitrogen. A fillet of pan-fried sand whiting, meanwhile, is dressed in mussel butter and plated elegantly among pools of smoked eel cream and garnished with thin discs of fermented daikon. Monochrome tones and ceiling-to-floor sheer curtains reinforce the sense of destination dining. And polished service owes itself in large part to the star presence of sommelier Cyril Thevenet, whose impressive grasp of a fine wine list means there's room to test your boundaries (a $27 glass of Georgian natural wine, perhaps?) comfortable in the knowledge that here, you're in safe hands.
18 Barker St, Griffith, aubergine.com.au
Armed only with some old furniture and a grand vision for an upstairs alcove in the stately Melbourne Building, rookie publican Nick Smith started a bar in Canberra made for a fine time. His next big move was a calculated risk, putting Louis Couttoupes – an enthusiastic, but untrained, walk-in – behind the stove. Fast forward and Gourmet Traveller's 2018 Bar of the Year continues to show what fun is possible in Canberra. With Couttoupes on sabbatical, Josh Lundy (Eightysix, Pulp Kitchen, Sepia) has inherited the bar's signature potato galette where alternating crisp and soft textures are lifted by a dusting of smoky dehydrated bush tomato. Gruyère gougères are stunningly light, while plum sauce cuts the richness of charred sourdough wrapped in warm, lightly rendered lardo. Larger share plates include pan-fried barramundi with Jerusalem artichoke, and inspired vegetarian options that draw on local organic and heirloom produce. Smith's service is exemplary, as are his wine choices, which gravitate to things biodynamic, orange and funky. With the crackle of an open fire and warm tones emanating from an encyclopedic vinyl collection, Rochford embodies authenticity and unpretentiousness. Fun, fine times indeed.
Level 1, 65 London Circuit, Canberra, barrochford.com
Pilot is a restaurant by the people for the people. One where two ambitious owners run the floor with grace and surety, and a talented young chef, Malcolm Hanslow, sends out plates that break good ideas down to their constituent parts and reassemble them in new, exciting ways. A potato salad, perhaps, that eats less like barbecue stodge and more like a refined Waldorf, made up of a jumble of radish, celery, and a coil of green apple dressed with potato cream and chives. Or cacio e pepe come via Japan with roasted-buckwheat noodles tossed through a sauce of buttery caramelised cabbage thick with parmesan and warm with black pepper. Or roast chicken in a sharp, savoury jus served with kombu mayo and steamed bread. Wines skew fresh, light and white. Snacks land hot, crisp and right on the money. While ceramics and glassware made in town, coffee from ACT roasters Barrio, and fruit and vegetables sourced from nearby growers double down on the local angle. The result? A restaurant for the here and now, that's right at the forefront of where capital dining is headed.
Shop 5/6 Wakefield Gardens, Ainslie, pilotrestaurant.com
This relaxed wine bar has matured into far more than just Aubergine's younger sibling. The menus seem crisper, the wine list more precise (Canberra region, some natural wines, a few Spanish options) and service more polished. The warehouse-like space of pressed-tin ceilings and factory-ceiling lamps generates a relaxed atmosphere that attracts natural wine- sipping millennials and suited bankers alike. Having given up the sliders and dude food, grazing options are now resolutely grown-up – croquettes are rich with Gruyère and prosciutto, while fresh salty organic Wapengo and South Coast oysters arrive gently warmed by the wood grill. Among share plates, slow-cooked wagyu intercostals go beautifully with a sweet and spicy hot bean paste and crisp wafers of nashi pear. Finely sliced celery and apple add refreshing crunch to a cleansing salad of spanner crab finished with pistachio mayo. Vegetarian options are no afterthought either – cabbage quarters are roasted to a golden hue, tossed in a buttermilk dressing, and served with smoked almonds and dried sour cherries. And desserts like panna cotta with rhubarb, apple and green shiso granita reflect the confidence and creativity in the kitchen.
15 Moore St, Canberra, temporada.com.au
Young and bold, the XO crew remain the torchbearers of experimental Asian dining in the national capital. Moving to an '80s playlist heavy on Astley and Minogue, fun-loving but well-drilled staff contribute to an infectiously relaxed vibe. Chequered floors and white-washed brickwork bring a sleek, contemporary style more familiar in Sydney's Potts Point than Canberra's slowly gentrifying inner south. And a playful pan-Asian menu exhibits hints of fusion free from confusion. A product of the owners' family backgrounds, Asian Bolognese is a total umami blast, where spaghetti is swapped for stir- fried udon noodles coated in a rich chicken ragù and topped with a slippery 60-degree egg, while nasi goreng is plated as elegant, vivid layers of squid- ink fried rice, flaked spanner crab and fluffy egg floss. Desserts get a twist as well – a take on tiramisù spiked with plum wine a case in point. Smart bar-side snacking options include mini bánh mì and buttermilk-marinated chicken wings that deliver a hit of heat, and a focused and sharp drinks selection features sake, skin-contact wines, inventive cocktails and cool-climate local shiraz. Just like the many spins on its namesake sauce, XO's success lies in recognising that variety is the spice of life.
16 Iluka St, Narrabundah, Canberra, xo-restaurant.com.au