Ottoman Cuisine: Balloons of Empire

We celebrate things in many ways. We throw parties with drinks and music, put on special displays of skill, or create something to commemorate the moment. But through all this, one of the universal symbols of celebration is a balloon.

And to celebrate Canberra’s 100th birthday, they created one hell of a balloon.

Ever since her mysterious visage graced the front page of news websites across the country, debate has raged about the Skywhale. Comments sections have been full of questions about whether she was worth the cost, whether or not she’s beautiful (in the eyes of this beholder, absolutely), and, most prevalently, whether her absurd, magical form has any relation to this city.

The artist, Patricia Piccinini, answers this with ideas about nature, evolution and genetic engineering, and the crosspoint of the natural and manufactured that is reflected in a lot of the way Canberra was designed. Centenary of Canberra Creative Director Robyn Archer leans more to the fact that the artist is connected to the city as being enough. But for many people, none of this is enough to account for a flying whale with multiple pendulous breasts.

I could come up with a lot of reasons to answer this question, linking Skywhale to various metaphors about the city. But instead, I ask bigger questions:

Why does it matter? Why should an artwork have some literal connection to the celebration or the city it commemorates? Isn’t it enough just to be generally joyous?

Think about art or architecture that, in your mind, directly represents a city. Most of the time that link has come not from any clear metaphorical relevance, but rather from the city accepting it as a symbol. They take it as something beautiful or interesting or joyful, and then the connection develops.

Canberra should embrace the glory of the Skywhale, and graciously allow her to represent our city. We should create merchandise, put her on brochures, and get people thinking about her when they think about the city. Because if there is one thing that Skywhale is not, she’s not boring.

But while we should undoubtedly embrace her, truly she deserves so much more. We are the provincial capital of  a distant and desolate nation, and much as I appreciate her service to our city, Skywhale would better fit as the symbol of a great empire!

While Canberra may sadly never become the new Rome, the remnants of one empire can be experienced in the leafy surounds of Barton. For over 20 years Ottoman Cuisine have been cooking the food of the Imperial palaces, gaining accolades all the way. Though would the Sultan have approved?

There is a certain lushness to the place, with its floor to ceiling windows and roof covered with a painted night sky. Roughly dividing the room are drinks stations with towers of Reidel glasses serving as chandeliers, which works well but has been done better elsewhere on a larger scale. Though any sense of an emperor’s feasting room is a little muted by the less than opulent and somewhat outdated chairs.

As is right for a Turkish feast, all the food is for sharing. A few came as self contained units, such as a baby eggplant stuffed with rice, pine-nuts, currants and spices, which was a little lacklustre, though mostly due to the actual eggplant having very little flavour. But that is always a risk when serving baby eggplants out of season.

More successful was a tagine of salami with onion, peppers and tomato, topped with a coddled egg. A spicy, rich stew, this was a comforting dish that would make an excellent breakfast.

The last entree was the most conflicted. Called “icli kofte” it was spiced lamb mince and walnuts, served inside a dense shell of cracked wheat pastry, with a dollop of yogurt and tahini sauce. The lamb itself was excellent, deliciously moist and well spiced. But then around it was this shell, which lacked enough flavour to justify the somewhat unpleasant texture.

This was an unfortunate trend that continued through the mains. The meat was always impeccably cooked, but then at times let down by what was served with it. Take the lamb cutlets, perfectly tender and packed with more flavour than you would expect salt and oregano to be able to deliver. It was a great piece of meat handled with the respect it deserved, but then served with a superfluous fried puck of mashed potato which were soft and under-seasoned.

Moist, lemony pieces of spatchcock were served with a forgettable pilaf. Simple char grilled king prawns, probably the best that I have had in Canberra, came with a simply uninteresting salad of eggplant and parsley. Again and again, phenomenal meat was lessened by its accompaniment.

Desserts were more internally consistent, with the stars being some interesting ice creams and sorbets. A gentle baked custard was matched with a sweet, tart pomegranate ice cream. Semolina and orange cake, drenched with pleasant citrus syrup worked well with a sharp but very light yoghurt sorbet. It’s a good way to end a meal.

An Eden Road 2008 Tumbarumba chardonnay managed to bridge the meal well, chosen from a strong list. Service was a little up and down, with enthusiastic staff sometimes getting confused. More than once multiple servers asked the same questions, telling of a floor without strong management.

In all, it was a pleasant meal, but there is one question that has to be asked with a restaurant like Ottoman Cuisine: Is it significantly better than your suburban Turkish restaurant? At Ottoman, the answer is a qualified maybe. Their quality and cooking of meat is way above what most restaurants in Canberra can manage, but for me the overall experience doesn’t quite match up.

The Ottomans had a sprawling, opulent empire, and this restaurant has lofty goals in trying to echo that legacy. But they aren’t quite there.

Name: Ottoman Cuisine

Address: 9 Broughton Street, Barton, ACT 2600

Ph: 02 6273 6111


Hours: Lunch noon to 2.30 Tuesday to Friday. Dinner 6pm to 10pm Tuesday to Saturday


About freehugstommy

Food, films and politics are my triumvirate of passions.
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