And so we come to that part of the year (the end of it) where people take stock of what has happened in the past 12 months. Our newspapers are full of list of bests and worsts, and we get reminded of the events that happened last summer that we’d almost forgotten about.
As we approach the Christmas and the New Year, it is time for my final post of 2011. Which means only one thing.
Welcome to the 2nd Annual Gormie Awards.
As with last year, these are, of course, only my opinions. While I have eaten at a good many of the restaurants in Canberra, I haven’t been everywhere, and I haven’t eaten everything. But this is a brief rundown of the local dining scene through my eyes this year.
So first, to the big one:
The 2011 Gourmie for Best Restaurant
To me, there are only two contenders for the best restaurant in the city, and neither comes as a real surprise. Both do updated versions of classic dishes, and one leaning Italian and the other French. Last year’s winner, Dieci e Mezzo, and the rejuvenated Sage stand well above the other options.
And while at Sage Clement Chauvin has some amazing ideas, and is applying his Michelin starred training to them, it is still, at times, a little too high concept. Which is why this Gourmie is retained by James Kidman and his team at Dieci e Mezzo.
The food at Dieci has always been astoundingly good, and the new menu offers some summer gems. For example, a salad of pigs head and trotter is surprisingly light, with the rich fried pucks of meat kept a lot less fatty than would be expected, but still delivering on flavour. And their new chocolate dessert, of cheesecake and honeycomb, is like a Violet Crumble taken to the next level.
But what really makes Diecia step above the rest of town is the service. Floor manager and sommelier Michael Gray runs the floor with the quality and attention to detail that you’d expect from top restaurants everywhere, brought from his experience at places like Vue de Monde. It is something that you see so rarely in Canberra, and it complements the food to take Dieci e Mezzo to the next level.
The 2011 Gourmie for Best Dish
This is always a very difficult decision. To think back through all the dishes I have eaten in Canberra this year and pick out the best takes a lot of memory, and a lot of comparison between very different dishes.
There is no clear winner this year, no single dish that stands head and shoulders over the rest. But a number of plates do stick out in my mind, dishes that I would happily go back to.
Both this year’s most interesting dish, and the dish that I went back to most often, come from the menu of the sadly defunct Pelagic. For the short time that they were open, the food from Mick Chatto’s kitchen was always good, and frequently excellent. My stand-by was their sashimi, full of flavour and beautifully cut, really celebrating the fish.
But the real excitement was a little ordered dish, on the menu for a short period when a Swedish backpacker was in the kitchen. Taste of the Sea was a cold oyster and mussel jelly, with whole shellfish and samphire. Unusual, but incredibly evocative, this was like dunking your head inside a rock pool at the beach. If Pelagic was still open, this would have been a very strong contender for the prize.
Instead, I look to a dish that ticks a lot of boxes. A simple, clean celebration of its central ingredient, this is a dish that tastes great, looks beautiful, and is perfect for sharing. And all that despite being vegetarian.
The tempura fried cauliflower with puffed rice and namjin foam from Soju Girl is the shining light on a list of small dishes with many highlights. Its strength is from its simplicity, its use of texture, and the beautiful creaminess of the cauliflower. With dishes like this on the menu, Soju Girl deserves to be a hit.
The 2011 Gourmie for Best Wine List
I have really struggled with this one this year. Most wine lists in Canberra are well thought out, if a little predictable, and nothing really stands out.
Again, I probably would have given the gong to Pelagic. Not so much for their wine selections, excellent though they are, as much as for its extended drinks menu, as Geoff Fewell was mixing the best cocktails in town. But it is hard to award a place that has closed.
Thirst, last year’s winner, still has an excellent selection, and a useful guide. And most places have standard, if high quality, lists, with only a few unexpected gems.
With no clear choice, this year I am giving the Gourmie to Sage for a list that is indicative of the ones around the city, but here coupled with a very helpful sommelier. Matthew Anelzark is knowledgeable and generally willing to accommodate the diner where possible if there is a better option available.
The 2011 Gourmie for Best Cheap Restaurant
A new award this year, to celebrate the many great options at the lower end of the price spectrum. In a town with such a large student population, these cheaper restaurants are an important part of the local scene.
For my purposes, I am using the term ‘cheap’ to mean somewhere you can get a good feed for less than $30 per person (and, in some places, well less). Thankfully, Canberra has many great cheap restaurants, from the broad choice in Dickson through to the wide range of new places popping up in and around Civic.
On the shortlist are the fresh and interesting fish and chip variations from the Fish Shack, the fun, spicy Sichuan cuisine at Spicy Ginger Café, and during the day the coffee and paninis from Lonsdale Street Roasters.
But my favourite cheap meal this year was the classic Malay street food on the menu at Mamak Roti House. Between the crisp roti, spicy fried chicken, and pleasing Nasi Lemak, it’s hard not to have a good time with this food. The refreshing and different non-alcoholic drinks list adds an extra dimension to make it worthy of the prize.
So that’s it for this year’s Gourmies, and for this year. After a break over Christmas, next year I will be back to keep eating and talking. With still a number of Canberra classics needing to be visited, and the constant anticipation of something new, there is sure to be a lot to write about.
But the big excitement for next year will be Capital Gourmand going on the road. That’s right, from mid-February to mid-May, I will be on a Stateside Adventure, sampling the best the east coast of the USA has to offer, and writing back on every succulent minute.
So bring on 2012! Happy New Year to everyone, and may your meals, and your life, get even tastier.