Name: Benchmark Wine Bar
Address: 65 Northbourne Ave, Canberra City 2600
Ph: 02 6262 6522
Hours: Lunch, Monday to Friday: 11:30pm – 3:00pm; Dinner, Monday to Saturday: 5pm – Late
Canberra winter gets a bad wrap sometimes, and, to be fair, there are some good reasons for that. Waking up to bracing sub-zero mornings is hardly the most enjoyable way to start every day.
But these cold, windy months do yield some benefits. There’s the encouragement to wear big, warm trench coats, the appearance of hot cocktails on lists, and having a very good excuse to stay rugged up in bed on the weekend.
But by far the greatest benefit is the abundance of those black nuggets of wonderful that are called truffles.
A subterranean fungus that grows among the roots of certain European trees, black Perigord truffles are in the top tier of ingredients, in terms of excitement and, coming with that, expense. The flavour is incredibly difficult to describe. It is very earthy, and strong in umami, but this simplistic description misses the real appeal of these things.
For the past few years in June and July Canberra has held the Capital Country Truffle Festival, a celebration of the impressive, and improving, local truffle industry. This means a lot of opportunities to try these, in particular through special truffle degustations at restaurants around town.
One such meal is held every Tuesday night of the festival at Benchmark Wine Bar, a joint with an amazing wine list and perhaps somewhat misplaced ambitions towards fine dining. They provide a five-course meal, with every dish containing truffles and matched with Italian wines. The choice of specifically Italian wines didn’t always make sense, as most of the dishes weren’t Italian, but they were all nice wines (if not always perfect matches).
To start, a voulevant with forest mushrooms and shaved truffle. Arriving at the table with that big money aroma wafting from the shavings, this should have been a beautiful two-bite showcase of the flavour of the truffle. Sadly, the overly doughy pastry stole the attention. It was still ok, but not what it could have been.
This set the scene for much of the rest of the meal, where most things were pleasant, but they all had issues, and they rarely highlighted the supposedly star ingredient. Some pan-seared scampi was sweet and plump, but it felt like an entirely different dish to the slightly tired sautéed asparagus and poached egg on the same plate. A dessert of caramelised pear with mascarpone and truffle honey worked quite well, but was let down by a bland pear.
The most successful dish was the steak, a grilled eye fillet that was tender and juicy, although I can imagine a lot of people wouldn’t have liked it as rare as it was. This was a beautiful piece of meat, served with some sautéed potatoes to make a very classic complete dish. But even here, the truffles, present in some butter on top of the steak, didn’t really impart any flavour.
Only one dish really highlighted the truffle. Proving yet again that, when you have an amazing ingredient, you should keep the dish as simple as possible, they shaved truffle over a very basic tagliatelle with parmesan. This allowed the truffle to shine, giving the velveteen punch that you expect. It was far from a perfect dish, with the pasta far too thick. Not to mention, matching it with a powerful Italian Zinfandel that wiped out the flavour of the dish made no sense at all.
Even still, this was a dish that had the idea right. Our region is producing some wonderful truffles. Restaurants should let them come through.
Benchmark tries hard with its food, but it never quite makes it above just ok. A great joint for a glass of wine, chosen from an extensive list, it doesn’t do what it would like to as a place to eat. Here the ingredient outstrips the meal.
If this were your only opportunity to try our local truffles, I would say go for it anyway, even at $150. Thankfully, at the moment those opportunities are thick on the ground. Visit www.trufflefestival.com.au for details, and don’t miss your chance to sample the best thing about Canberra winters.