The kitchen used to have such mystique. It was hidden behind a door, where the chefs would weave their magic in secret, the miraculous final product being all the diner would see.
Then along came the TV cameras, hovering inches above the busy working hands of celebrity chefs, laying bare their skills while peppered with “pukka” and “BAM”.
Along came a thousand cookbooks with in depth details and high definition photos of every move, giving us all the step-by-step playbook to make Michelin-starred food at home (provided you have a some Michelin-starred kitchen gear).
Along, too, came everyone’s favourite chubby trio, replete with bad puns and “plate ups” yelled at former lawyers and teaches, suggesting that all it took to be a world class chef was passion.
All of these brought us into the world behind those swinging doors, if some more accurately than others. But nothing did this more than the open kitchen, something that literally brought the kitchen out from behind the swinging doors.
Suddenly the chefs became entertainment, the organised frenzy of the stoves and the pass giving people something to look at while waiting for their entree. You could see the flames, study the finesse of plating, and listen to the possibly muted swearing.
At Mocan & Green Grout, the new buzz-generating cafe in New Acton, the open kitchen is taken that one step further. Rather than a large open side to a classical kitchen, here the chefs are cooking in the middle of the restaurant.
A deep fryer, an oven, an electric stove, two chefs and an array of filled bowls are at a small bench in the centre of a room that feels more like the common room of a cheap tropical backpackers. Perched at the corner of that marble bench, with the mild chaos of service bustling around you, you get to see just how much culinary mastery can be achieved with so little.
You can see a jumble of roast, spiced organic carrots be piled high with pickled carrot slivers and an almond sauce to create a surprisingly meaty vegetarian dish. Or you can watch the endless shucking of fresh Narooma rock oysters, served with mirin and a sprinkle of furikake to give a salty seaweed hit.
Led by chef Sean McConnell, the third brother in one of the nation’s great families of food, the dishes being put out from this quasi-kitchen are of impressive quality. The weekly changing menu takes cues from across the world, referencing Spain, Japan, Italy and Scandinavian cuisines, while highlighting whatever produce looks good.
Take a dish of line-caught snapper, pan fried and served with a corn puree, corn kernels, paprika and slivers of perfect baby zucchini, just touched with heat. Visually spectacular as an artful arrangement of green, gold and white, this delivered on all levels, with the sugar of the corn and the slight bite of the zucchini lifting the sweet fishiness of the fillets.
Just as impressive for the more adventurous diner are two deep-fried lamb brains, served with the irony smack of black pudding and a gentle, fresh parsley foam. While the foam lost its structure far too quickly, the intensity of the flavours melded too well for it to matter.
The quality of dishes across my two visits was high, from saffron-cured sardines on toast, to dense trout croquettes, to a salad of nuts and grains. Even those that missed weren’t too far off, mostly hitting the mark with flavour but missing on other aspects. A deep-fried soft shell crab had great sweet flesh, but it didn’t have that crispiness it should have. Two different dishes had exceptionally tender braised then fried pork, one with green mango and prawn floss, the other with a mix of bread crumbs and chorizo, but each time they needed a sauce to tie everything together. Little problems, but noticeable when everything else is so good.
As you watch these guys plate up you can see that this is a smart menu. With all the food being sharing plates, a lot of dishes are leaves the pass, and there is a real race to get everything together. That’s why there are a reasonably large number of cold dishes on the menu, such as a fabulous fig, prosciutto, Meredith chevre and vincotto number that was fresh and sweet, holding that line between main and dessert.
It does mean that service is a little hectic. With so little manpower and space tickets are filled by what is the most efficient, rather than what was ordered first.
In lieu of a license they offer corkage-free BYO, and it’s worth bringing something interesting. It fits with the relaxed vibe of the place. Although it is worth finishing with a coffee, their core business during the day and something they really know how to do.
This is not the sort of place where every plate comes out looking identical. Things can be a little haphazard in presentation, but it really doesn’t matter. Flavour is what matters here, using great ingredients to make enjoyable food. Mocan & Green Grout has added something different to the Canberra scene, with Sean and his team doing a hell of a lot with very little.
And even better, you can pull up a chair and watch them do it.
Name: Mocan & Green Grout
Address: 19 Marcus Clarke Street, New Acton, ACT, 2601
Ph: 02 6162 2909
Chef: Sean McConnell
Hours: Breakfast and lunch: Monday – Saturday, 7am-6pm; Sunday, 8am-3pm. Dinner: Tuesday – Friday, 6pm-close.