I had been asked by some readers and friends to go check out the food at the National Arboretum Canberra. I had heard mixed reviews that the food was somewhere between mediocre and terrible, which I thought was odd knowing that the catering was done by Chef Janet Jeffs and the people at Ginger Catering. What I later found out was that there is a cafe AND restaurant up there (both were run by Ginger Catering), so which one had people been going to?
I usually plan my restaurant outings like doctors’ appointments- I book a few days in advance and be a little lenient when I can’t get my first time slot preference, but on a lazy Saturday morning I seized an open opportunity in my schedule and decided- today is the day I’m eating at the Conservatory Restaurant at the Arboretum. Not long after, I was promptly turned down as they said they were booked out, I quickly ran through some alternative venues to have a last minute lunch in my head and then I irrationally thought to myself, ‘no, I don’t believe they could be booked out!’ (keep in mind I hadn’t eaten breakfast during my delusional state of mind). I asked TimmyC to book this time, thinking that somehow his unenthusiastic tone was going to make a difference. He got someone else on the phone (20 minutes between calls) and he asked if he could book a table of four for lunch later that day. There was silence; I waited with baited breath… “Sure that will be fine, you can have 1pm or 1:30pm”. “1:30pm would be great” TimmyC excitedly replied while I was left making WTF faces at him looking very puzzled. I tried to just be happy that we had got a booking rather than dwell on the unusual events that had just occurred and off to the Arboretum we went.
I had never driven that way before but I was assured that I would see a huge spaceship like building and to avoid the mini Opera house. As we drove up Forrest Drive, sure enough there it was- the Mother ship.
I walked in and scanned the room, I was lost. I didn’t see anything that resembled a restaurant anywhere. We poked our head outside, nope that was towards the bonsai exhibition. ‘Where was it?’ I thought to myself. We finally found the Conservatory restaurant tucked to the side near the Village centre deck, right next to the Bean Sprout Cafe.
Only this somewhat partition and a few indoor plants divide the Bean Sprout Cafe and the Conservatory Restaurant.
Complimentary warmed bread and olives.
Jewel box sushi – a selection from Eli Choi master sushi maker ($25.00). There wasn’t much in way of entrees so my friend and I shared this sushi platter. Nothing too impressive or traditional here, it was a mix of Westernised sushi and to me what seemed like hors d’oeuvres mashed together with some rice which looked very out of place on the platter. I wouldn’t bother ordering this especially when you get complimentary bread.
Thick chips with parmesan crumbs and rosemary salt ($10.00). Probably considered expensive in the way of chips but they were made very well, served hot and crunchy.
Confit duck legs with pomegranate and mandarin ($32.00). Crispy skin duck with tender meat.
Saffron ravioli and caramelised root vegetables, rosemary and garlic ($29.00). I didn’t see any caramelised root vegetables, just a whole lotta carrot. Nothing too fabulous but my friend really enjoyed his meal.
Boxgum Grazing beef ragu with hand cut pappardelle ($29.00). I peer pressured TimmyC into getting this dish as this was my second choice for a main and what’s the point in taking your partner if you can’t force him to get what you want to eat so you can have the best of both worlds? I am a big BIG fan of Box Grazing, the beef was so tender in a very rich ragu. I love my parmesan cheese but I thought this was an odd way to serve your pasta (with a huge side of cheese plonked on the side). I prefer my parmesan to be more sharp and salty, this didn’t have as much flavour as I’m used to eating.
Beef porterhouse grass fed, tarragon mushrooms and marchand de vin sauce ($32.00). I found the sauce to be a bit too much and salty but it didn’t matter if you didn’t smother each bite sized portion of steak in the sauce. This was a very tender and very flavoursome meat which probably didn’t need an OTT sauce.
Vanilla marshmallow and chocolate truffles. I’m not usually a fan of marshmallows but I really liked this one. The chocolate truffle had a hard chocolate encasing a very rich chocolate ganache.
Vanilla and almond crème brûlée and amaretto biscotti ($15.00). A very velvety smooth vanillery brûlée with a hard toffee hat, just like a perfect brûlée should have.
Chocolate mousse dessert special ($12.00). I forgot to take a photo of the menu so excuse the description. A very OTT chocolate dessert with an airy light texture.
Banana bavarois dessert special ($12.00). I forgot to take a photo of the menu so excuse the description. I expected a softer non frozen hard texture but we had to chisel away at this dense, frozen dessert.
Cheesecake fromage frais with blackberry granita ($15.00). I was a big fan of this cheesecake as it tasted like a Japanese cheesecake which is one of my favourite desserts. The base was like a hard vanilla shortbread which was hard to cut through and the granita was better when it had semi melted as it got rid of the harsh icy chunks in the texture.
When I rang my friends telling them that we were going to the Arboretum for lunch, I could hear the unenthusiastic tone in their voice but I assured them we were going to the restaurant side not the cafe side where they had been disappointed with the food before. After the meal, they were much more impressed with the food at the Arboretum.
The service was attentive and polite and we didn’t feel rushed towards the end even while being the only table left during lunch service. I’ll admit, the food wasn’t as marvellous as when they were running the Ginger Room at Old Parliament House but it was better than a lot of restaurants. The prices can be seen as rather quite high but I suspect that is because of the breathtaking views that you get while enjoying your meal. The centrepoint tower in Sydney doesn’t have the best meals nor the cheapest prices but people keep going for the view.
Even though it is the same catering company between the cafe and the restaurant, the menu and calibre of food is very different. I would much prefer to pay a bit more (well in this case, the price difference is much more) for assigned seating (I hear fighting for a seat on the cafe side can be quite a feat), table service, the different menu and the more relaxed sparse space between tables. They could easily fit a lot more tables in the restaurant although I feel they are trying to keep the area more intimate.
Venue: The Conservatory Restaurant
Address: National Arboretum Canberra, ACT
Phone: (02) 6130 0173