The roast chook at Pilot goes like this: a big, free-ranging organic bird, cold-smoked, skin stuffed with leek and mushroom. Roasted whole and rested so the juice runs back into the meat, it comes carved and perched in a bowl of reduced chicken stock that at first glance you might call a gravy. To the left, two slices of steamed white bread and a disc of mayonnaise. To the right, a salad of butter lettuce.
Bread, mayo, chicken, salad, gravy. If you were a Sydney kid growing up east of the Red Rooster line, or a Canberra kid with fond memories of the local chicken shop, this combination will be familiar. But here each element is scrutinised, then elevated to the best version of itself. It's the white pepper, tamari and rice vinegar seasoning the jus, the kombu in the mayonnaise, the sharpness and the savouriness of the dashi vinaigrette, the pillowy bread.
Refining fundamentals, then pushing them. This is the brief at Pilot, where each decision appears to have been made to advance the cause of hospitality in the ACT by people with genuine affection for the city. Owners and partners Dash Rumble and Ross McQuinn, and chef Malcolm Hanslow, met while working at EightySix in Braddon, before peeling off to pick up experience here and further afield – Rumble on the floor at Momofuku Seiobo, McQuinn at Pulp Kitchen, and Hanslow at Automata, Ester and Oscillate Wildly. The result of their reunion is a restaurant for the here and now, strengthened with tricks gleaned from storied establishments with international connections and reputations.
Having a vision and implementing it are different things, but Pilot gets the details right. Sourdough, made by their bread guy, Barry, is spot on. Blini piled with mustardy beef tartare and cured yolk are hot and crisp. Kimchi dipped in potato-flour batter and fried, and topped with kombu powder and mayo, crackles and crunches and steams in the centre. Things are just cooked, just dressed. These are simple things, but the right things.
Engaging locals is the right thing, too. A ruffle of ferns, eucalyptus and lichen mounted on the far wall is from Urban Jungle in Fyshwick. Ceramics and glassware are made in town, coffee is from Barrio in Braddon, and nearby growers, including Brightside Produce, provide fruit and vegetables.
The room itself, which used to house Pulp Kitchen, is now dressed with Edison bulbs and a green velvet banquette. A bar stands at the entrance, bentwood furniture fills the floor, and airy curtains bring a sense of intimacy to what is, after all, one of a strip of unremarkable shops in suburban Ainslie.
The space can feel a little bare if the 30-odd seats aren't full, but the brigade working the open kitchen adds energy. Hanslow, like his former employers, has the ability to take a simple idea, hone it, and present it as something new, but still keep its essence. His cacio e pepe, for example, takes a spin through Japan in a dish of "cabbage e pepe", with house-made roasted-buckwheat noodles – replacing spaghetti – tossed in a sauce of sweet, buttery caramelised cabbage thick with parmesan. Plenty of black pepper adds the right level of warmth and bite.
Potato salad, meanwhile, eats less like Sunday barbecue stodge and more like a refined Waldorf, turning the dish into a jumble of radish, celery, and a translucent coil of green apple dressed with a potato cream and chives. Crunchy, fresh, and a whole lot of clever. Order it.
It works that the owners are present on the floor, too, leading a style of service that's assured and relaxed, but not so relaxed that they're going to slip onto the seat beside you to take your order. Rumble has also taken over drinks duties after their sommelier, Caitlin Baker, decamped to Scotland, but the pitch is the same: fresh, light and leaning white, with a handful of heavier reds for those ordering the hanger steak. In the main, though, it's trend-aware and proudly Australian. Think biodynamic Ngeringa chardonnay, bottles from Harkham Wines in the Hunter, or cloudy orange Tangerine Dream from organic maker Smallfry. A couple of sakes, and local beers and spirits round it out. Some might call it too natural, but I reckon they call it about right.
Desserts are sound, even if a brown-butter mousse with potato ice-cream and powdered mushroom is trying a bit too hard. A rice pudding crossed with the Persian rosewater milk pudding, muhalbiyah, hits the right notes, but ends up a little soupy. They'd do well to break from the sorbet-with-crunchy-things model, but so would a lot of places.
In Pilot, the ACT has a restaurant that's right on the pulse, one that raises the expectations of what Canberra dining can be, without overreaching or taking itself too seriously. That's no small trick, even if it still feels small town in the best of ways. And hey, what about that chicken.