Name: Soju Girl
Address: Melbourne Building, 41/43-45 Northbourne Ave, Canberra City
Ph: 02 6257 5328
Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: 11:30am-Late. Saturday and Sunday, 2:00-Late. Closed Tuesday.
As all Australian food critics, amateur and professional alike, learnt this week that the reviews we write can be a dangerous game. The long-running legal drama of a defamation case between now defunct restaurant Coco Roco and former Fairfax Matthew Evans came to a head. The NSW Court of Appeals decided that Evans’ extremely negative review had defamed Coco Roco.
Matthew Evans had written a review saying that the food was bad, and that the owners were incompetent for hiring such a terrible chef, a view that it seems Evans was not the only one to hold. The restaurant went under six months later, something that the owners put down to this single appalling review.
As it has bounced through the court system, various issues about the nature and responsibilities of a critic were debated. Is a review to be read as objective truth, or as the opinion of the reviewer? And does this affect how you can talk about a particularly bad dining experience?
In the end, though, the point that turned the decision was much more basic. If a place is split into multiple restaurants, don’t review it as one.
Coco Roco was a split restaurant, with a formal section upstairs, and a less formal bistro downstairs. Evans only ate upstairs, but didn’t make this clear enough in his review. The judge decided that this implication that both restaurants were bad because one was removed the possibility of using truth as a defence.
It seems a petty point, but it was something to keep in mind when reviewing Soju Girl, Canberra’s newest bar/restaurant/bistro.
Thankfully, though, there were two points that meant I was unlikely to fall in the Evans trap: I have eaten in all three sections, and all three are good.
That said, the difference between the three sections is not particularly clear. Sure, one side has white tablecloths and table service, while on the other you order at the bar and take a number to a bare bench, but in both cases the menu is the same.
Not that there is anything to complain about with this menu. The focus is on modern-Asian sharing plates, and the chefs, formerly of Parlour, manage to keep everything light and fun.
The small plates are the stars, perfect for two or three people over a drink. A salad of cuttlefish with bacon jam and soft herbs is a fresh take on a Vietnamese salad, and a great summer dish. Meanwhile, small cubes of crispy pork, served with a sweet, sticky red date puree and cut through with black vinegar caramel, was helped by the decision to go with pork hock rather than belly. The meat is just as rich and unctuous, but without the large slabs of fat.
Particularly exciting is the vegetarian selection, which is one of the best in town. Amongst the four vegetarian small plates are a soft, spiced dip of steamed eggplant, packed with coriander. These are two of my favourite ingredients, and here they are married beautifully in this cooling dish, eaten on crisp rice crackers.
The cauliflower dish was even more exciting. Golden nuggets of tempura fried florets and heaped in the centre of a wooden board. The crunch of the batter gives way to the natural creaminess of the cauliflower, with the cooling softness of a namjin foam cutting through. It is one of the best dishes in Canberra this year, vegetarian or not.
Large plates are more traditional curry based dishes, and a little less exciting. No one seems to be able to resist ordering the coconut braised duck, and it does sound exciting in yellow curry. The curry sauce is rich and creamy, with a good punch of flavour. But the ample serving of duck demonstrates that there is such a thing as too tender. The meat is uncomfortably soft in your mouth, and a bit of a disappointment.
Desserts are interesting, ranging from the inventive to the basic. A sponge of sesame, served with white sesame ice cream and aloe vera jelly, is on the more unusual end. Quite savoury, with the roundness of flavour that sesame has, this was interesting and pleasant more than an unrivaled success. A more classic selection of mango meringue, mango sorbet, and berries was at the other end of the spectrum. Sweet and crowd pleasing, without leaving much of an impression.
If the food is the same in each section, the service does differ. Everything felt smoother in the restaurant section, making for an easier night than the more casual bistro. Although sitting at the bar is also a good option if you’re fine sticking with the small plates.
The wine list is short and well thought out, with enough to match to the food. For my tastes the cocktails are a little too sweet, as it is deliberately geared towards female drinkers (so the bartender told me).
Soju Girl is an exciting opening for Canberra, and hopefully can survive in what has been a difficult location for restaurants. But it is worth seeking out, because you will have a good time.
Whichever part of it you visit.