In an age of democratic all-day, anything-goes dining, Aubergine has gone the other way, upping the exclusivity factor and cementing itself as a special-occasion night out.
In saying that, understand that this little restaurant at the Griffith shops is anything but old-fashioned. Nor is it stuffy. It simply focuses on being a special place to dine, with a wine list like no other, and food that is intricate without being annoying, up to date and highly seasonal.
Aubergine has refurbished since we last visited, and rather than opening itself to the street like so many others have done, it has closed the dining room off more, with long sheer black curtains, dark carpet, black-clad wait staff, leather placemats on the tables – which are widely spaced for discreet conversation. The lighting, too, is dark. In all, quite an appealing enclosed feel.
Aubergine has a set menu, $90 for four courses, and you can add cheese for another $14.
It’s not extensive, with the starter chosen by the restaurant, then just four options in the entrees, four mains and three desserts. The menu is fast changing, starting with whatever ingredients are best this week.
The canapes, though, haven’t changed greatly since our last visit, and we’re not complaining. We love the creamy smoked eel served on a little blini with a citrus chunk on top, and the black pudding inside a chocolate wafer tube. And we’re served really good chewy delicate sourdough, with lovely butter.
The starter is a beautiful dish of cured bonito, delicate slices hidden under robust lovage leaves, with chunks of celtuce, a Chinese root lettuce that adds such a familiar curry-like flavour and yet is unusual served like this in almost translucent slices. This is the kind of thing that Aubergine does well – source beautiful ingredients and treat them with originality and understanding. With this is what’s described as a mussel emulsion, a meaty umami sauce that ties the greens and tuna together.
Chicken breast is usually a menu avoid, simply for its boredom, but here the meat is delicious. It’s a heritage breed from Sommerlad Poultry, and is bitey and textural, served with a sweet black-garlic puree, loads of black pepper and shiitake mushrooms, wombok, and braised eggplant.
The duck breast is served with very uncompromising triangles of confit cumquat, left to shine as they are; fermented daikon in long thin slices, a super-soft wedge of roast, darkened pumpkin, seeds and flowers. Presentation is beautiful without taking over.
So careful is the service that, goodness, the napkins are laid on your lap not by hand but with the help of implements. This is possibly an affectation too far. But everyone is well briefed. The wait staff can explain the dishes in detail, the wine guy, I believe, could give you the history not only of the vineyard but also the winemaker, the vigneron, and I suspect the vineyard’s resident mutt as well, such is his knowledge and preparedness to share.
We learn about the relationship between tannins and protein, which explains the food synergy of wines like those made by local Bryan Martin, whose Seven Months we are drinking – and about which we learn the origin of the name. The details are already hazy but it was something to do with losing track of the wine and just leaving it to do its thing uninterrupted for that period of time.
The wine talk, while extensive, is not unwelcome nor overdone, and is justified by the extraordinary list which is divided into new and old world wines by variety, and has such happy inclusions as a Japanese bubbly, an entire page of orange wines, and a careful list of sakes.
There’s one vegetarian dish in each of the courses, and it’s the one we plump for as a main – roast red cabbage, which is served to emphasise its roundness, like a dark turtle curled up on the plate. Valiant effort has been made to fill this with a meat-like luxury by using what might be loads of butter adding mouthfeel and fat.
The menu also promises fermented mushroom. There’s horseradish in the creme on the plate, the taste of vinegar and great little halves of roast deep-red beetroot. It’s a study in depth of colour and is surprisingly rich to taste, to the extent that it’s a challenge to get through, as a big serve of a single ingredient often is.
Espresso delice with pepper meringue and chocolate sorbet is an uncompromising dessert and not an obvious crowd pleaser. It’s a dark offering, even the meringue has dialled down the sweetness to an extreme, and the flavours are coffee and cocoa. A whiskey drinker’s dessert, perhaps.
Brown butter icecream with almond praline and frozen lemon myrtle milk is presented like an egg, what we assume is the frozen lemon milk has been dried, puffed and blasted into light pieces that form the egg white in this picture, with the round of ice cream sitting in the middle. It’s delicious sticky and nutty, cold like the best candy bar.
Aubergine is fine dining that works, not stuffy in the feel and highly agile in choice of seasonal, local and lesser-known ingredients.
Address: 18 Barker St, Griffith
Phone: 6260 8666
Owner: Ben Willis and Andrea Willis
Chef: Ben Willis
Hours: Dinner Monday to Saturday
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise: No problem
Vegetarian: Not extensive but very good.