Name: Charcoal Grill Restaurant
Address: 61 London Cct, Canberra 2601
Ph: 02 6248 8015
Hours: Lunch, Monday to Friday: 12pm – 2:30pm; Dinner, Monday to Saturday: 6pm – 10pm.
A lot of running a restaurant is about keeping up with the fashions, and they move quickly. At the moment, everywhere you look there are American fast-food inspired dishes, locally foraged ingredients, and a surprising amount of chicken skin on menus.
Go back a few years and every restaurant was serving scallops and pork belly, with smears adorning the plates and lots of beetroot. Next month, who knows?
But some people don’t like change. They struggle with the pace of these rotating fads, longing for somewhere that feels safe and secure. A culinary time capsule.
Canberra has one of these in Charcoal Grill Restaurant, a step back in time on London Circuit. Stepping through the doors you find a thatched ceiling, wooden tables, and the warming feel of a 1960s ski lodge. On the tables are old-school plastic placemats, classic pieces of Australiana, with prints of out-back life. They aren’t the same ones my grandparents had, but they’re not far different.
The menu harks back to a simpler time, when a steak was identified only by cut and cooking method, no mention of breed or diet. A time when avocado was so new to our shores that it was considered exotic to serve it halved and drizzled with vinaigrette, an item still available here, if nowhere else.
For entrée I went for the house-made chicken liver pate, served with a smiley face made from olives and a chilli for a somewhat tacky presentation. To eat it, curls of butter and toast corners with the crusts cut off, adding to the childish feel of the dish. The pate itself was quite good, if a tad dull, but it didn’t feel like something you get in a restaurant.
More to my tastes were two pieces of punchy anchovy bread, demonstrating the simple joy that can come from this much maligned fish.
Dessert was the British school meal classic of steamed pudding and brandy custard, perfect for the current Canberra weather. The pudding itself was light and moist, not at all stodgy. Sadly someone made the decision to drown it in rather lackluster custard, with it filled all the way to the rim of the bowl. It looked like a plateau rising out of a yellow marsh.
But in the end, all of this is irrelevant at a place like Charcoal. This is a steakhouse, and the only thing that matters is that grilled slab of meat.
Unable to bring myself to order any of the retro treatments that kill a piece of beef, like the carpetbag steak or the reef’n’beef. Why anyone would ruin a steak by drowning it in a creamy seafood sauce is not something I can understand. Instead, a 350gram piece of premium rump seemed the ticket, not unreasonable at $39, cooked the rare side of medium-rare.
It arrived sizzling on the plate, an adorably twee jacket potato in foil sitting beside it, made even cuter by the offering of sour cream and chives to go on top. The meat looked thick and juicy, with a beautiful charred surface, exactly as you would hope for.
Unfortunately, what I hadn’t counted on was the workout it gave my jaw. Even accounting the fact that rump is not the most tender cut, this was far too tough, and had an underwhelming flavour. Frankly, the only things to stop it from being a complete disappointment were the lusciously rich, creamy béarnaise sauce, and a powerful 05 St Henri shiraz.
When it came to Charcoal I was expecting the old-school décor, the ancient menu, the comfortable, homely service and the wine list that barely notices that there are wines other than heavy South Australian reds, all of which I met. But I also expected that, after 49 years of practice, they would be able to deliver an excellent steak. On this point I was sadly disappointed.
And yet, this quite small restaurant was packed full on a cold Tuesday night in winter, easily doing at least 40 covers. The crowd seemed to be mostly from out of town, and was almost all male.
This raises the obvious question, why?
Sure, the place isn’t bad, and it does feel comfortable. But there are so many better options around. Just down the road there are some stunning steaks at Locanda, and yet I’m not convinced they would have this level of custom in the middle of the week.
Charcoal Grill is an enigma to me, a time travel theme park much more than a restaurant, trading very well on a name and a wall of empty bottles of Grange.
I guess some people just feel safer in the past.