Legitimate nostalgia is a dining sensation all but non-existent on the contemporary Australian dining scene. Sure, many establishments fit the stereotype of “rustic” or “vintage” but at the end of the day, those inspired interiors are nothing more than the result of savvy business men, inspired designers and expensive fit outs mass produced by the cold, impartial touch of machinery in a far off land.
A rare and wonderful exception to this trending rule is The Ginger Room at Old Parliament House. Entering through the gracious dark wooden doors was akin to how I’d conceptualised the fantastical experience of time travel and, considering the raging blizzard conditions festering in 21st Century Canberra, I was more than happy to indulge in a bit of harmless escapism. Hemmingway himself could have been penning works of classic literature in the corner, or the string quartet from RMS Titanic’s doomed first class dining room could have been softly playing Beethoven’s 5th. Even the gracious, polite and efficient nature of the wait staff were suggestive of a social era long passed.
The menu is concise, precise and exciting, offering four choices each for vegetables, fish, meat and dessert – or you could make the occasion and take the un-regrettable route of a seven course degustation with matched wines. As an appetizer, we were served a very cute thimble of lemon, carrot and coconut soup with a paprika crouton. The texture was smooth and hinted towards just a touch of spice, whilst the crouton was wonderfully moreish in the way only crisp, savoury carbohydrates can be.
For entrée, we were all provided with something from the vegetable list of the menu. Painstakingly beautiful plates of san choy bow, cheddar soufflé and smoked tomato dumplings arrived looking nothing short of impeccable and smelling absolutely sensational. The san chow bow presented within crisp cups of fresh witlof consisted of mushroom duxelle, chilli salted bean curd, a whole tea infused quail egg and was finished with a light sprinkling of flaked almonds and a sweet, sticky Asian inspired sauce tinged with aniseed flavour.
The smoked tomato and basil dumplings were like crunching through a very pleasant tasting bushfire. There was an underlying earthiness from both the nature of the tomato and appealingly dark, golden colour of the dumplings, intensified by the lentil, rosemary and rocket emulsion in the centre of the plate.
The stokes point cheddar soufflé was (of course) technically perfect, displaying that lightly browned top hat of elevated mixture, just peeking over the top of a classically corrugated porcelain ramekin. The small salad of watercress, radish and sweetly poached pear was the best possible accompaniment, closely followed by the suggested matching Pinot from New Zealand.
Mains provided dinner and a show – an exhibition if you will – of just how beautiful food can look. The soy and lemon grass salmon with chorizo, wasabi peas, daikon, squash and royal blue potato was simply divine and is stellar proof you don’t need to be on the coast to be in company of exemplary seafood. Even though stained a burnt umber from the soy, the salmon inside was coral, creamy and permeated a light veil of lemongrass infusion, tickling the senses to blissful satisfaction.
The lamb back strap came the only way lamb should – oozing juices and displaying a soft, cerise tenderness to the centre. Accompanied by shitake mushrooms, king brown mushrooms, dark frond of cavolo nero and a garlic sage mash, this has to be one of my favourite lamb dishes of all time.
The third main served was the confit duck with an intriguing morsel of sugar cured kangaroo, shao xing cabbage, almonds and parsnip. The fusion of meltingly soft, sweet, lip-coating duck with saccharine yet savoury bursts of kangaroo and sharpness of darkly wilted cabbage was heaven-sent. It was enjoyed so much by one member of the dining party I almost missed out on a taste!
Dessert will always be my favourite course – and I’d be lying if I said these weren’t the most beautiful manifestations of sugar I’ve ever had the delight to see – let alone eat! We were presented with wattleseed and dark chocolate ganache tart, hazelnut toffee and vanilla bean ice cream first of all, vanilla marshmallow, lavender crumble, pistachio, rosewater and black cumin ice cream followed and finally, we were fortunate enough to also try the peanut butter mousse with nougat ice cream, caramel and chocolate wafer, which was matched perfectly with Haan Viognier Ratatia from the Barossa Valley. I won’t divulge to much information here otherwise you’ll be reading my accolades for hours – but the ganache tart is dark, sinful and to die for, the nougat served with the peanut butter mousse is softer than sorbent and will have you yearning for more, and the cumin ice-cream served alongside the largest and most geometric marshmallow I’ve ever seen is something you just have to taste for yourself.
If you have a lazy Friday (heck, any) evening to depart the present and allow yourself a much needed trip back to times when dining out was a fine event for real silver, glasses polished to sparkling perfection and service so efficient you could blink and miss it – then please indulge yourself in the architecture, food, wine, atmosphere and company of the Ginger Room at Old Parliament House. It could be the best thing about residing in the otherwise concrete brutalist national capital.