Lunch at Sage

I dined at Sage a few weekends ago to celebrate both my sister’s birthday and mine with my family, and it turned out to be an amazing experience. I’ve been to the fine-dining restaurant on various other occasions, but this time the food felt simpler with less frills and there wasn’t that pretentious vibe you often feel at higher end restaurants.

As soon as you walk through the Mint garden bar (the bar attached to Sage which re-opened last Friday) to get to the restaurant, you can feel the relaxed vibe with round wooden tables and stools made of recycled beer kegs. The restaurant itself has an intimate yet open feel as we sat by the windows overlooking the bar. One of the reasons why I wanted to go for lunch was because I knew it would be less busy than if we went for dinner. I’m so glad we did because that only added to our amazing experience—it was as though we had the whole restaurant to ourselves considering there was only one other table occupied. There’s this weird expectation that dinners are reserved for special occasions, but my favourite meal to celebrate is lunch especially with this nicer weather. We also had an extremely attentive and informative waiter who very patiently answered all my questions.

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As we were on our way out, I was lucky enough to be approached by the executive chef, Johnon MacDonald, to come back to Sage to talk about their produce, farm, food and restaurant. Obviously I couldn’t turn down this opportunity, so we met the following Saturday for a casual chat at the restaurant.

If I had to describe Johnon in three words, I would say he is passionate, unpretentious and genuine. With extensive experience from some of the best restaurants in Australia (Rockpool, Gingerboy, Nobu and Attica to name a few), he brings a wealth of knowledge to Australia’s capital. He is the executive chef at not only Sage, but its sister restaurant Akiba as well. On top of this, he will also be the exec chef at a new Mexican inspired restaurant which will open early next year.

As Johnon sipped on his latte he told me about his plans to go to the Sage farm after our meeting. With the recent change in company structure, the farm is currently undergoing a restoration and needs some tender loving care. He told me he makes three or four trips to the farm each week to do what he can to bring it back to life. One day the restaurant hopes to source all their fresh produce solely from their farm, but for now, farmer’s markets and secret restaurant suppliers will have to do.

The restaurant has plans to re-vamp the interior to create a less formal and more relaxed and interactive atmosphere. The plan is to give the restaurant a more modern feel with wooden tables and open spaces. For the moment, floral, cushion-lined booths against the white panels and crisp white lined tablecloths create a feminine and intimate feel.

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We all opted for the 5 for $75 degustation, and added the 3 ‘bites’ that would come sporadically throughout our meal for an additional $15. I also chose the non-alcoholic soft pairings for $25 because I’m greedy… Our degustation was different from the others I’d looked up online. This is because Sage constantly change their menu to suit not only the season, but also the best produce available. We started with fresh white sourdough served with soft butter and black salt made from volcanic ash.

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Fennel

The first of the ‘bites’ was a chunk of tender but crunchy fennel with smoked almond purée and apple and ginger purée. It had a slightly sweet, licorice flavour, which was contrasted by the savoury smoked almond purée. The dish was served cold which was refreshing and prepared our palette for the degustation to come.

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Smoked salmon parfait

The second of the ‘bites’ was a smoked salmon parfait with preserved lemon curd, dehydrated olives, salmon roe and a cracked pepper tuile. The parfait was so creamy and smooth with a subtle smokey flavour. The preserved lemon curd was not overly sweet and perfectly cut through the creaminess of the parfait. I also loved the saltiness of the dehydrated olives and salmon roe which I thought went really well with the sweet lemon curd. The tuile had a slight pepper flavour and added a nice crunchy element to the smooth parfait.

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Sugar cured salmon

This sugar cured salmon dish with whipped tahini, walnut tarator (a walnut, red onion, coriander, lemon and chilli salsa) and dehydrated lemon was one of my favourite dishes of the entire degustation. The salmon itself was so tender it melted in my mouth. The whipped tahini was thick and creamy, and the walnut tarator was light and added a fresh element.

At his trial for the executive position at Sage, Johnon cooked a dish very similar to this one. Rather than salmon, he used ocean trout but used the same technique of curing. So, this salmon dish pays homage to his career at Sage.
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Cranberry surprise

This was a great pairing with the sugar cured salmon as it wasn’t too sweet. Rather, it was tart and fresh.

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Textures of carrot

This dish is actually Johnon’s favourite because of its simple flavours. It comes with hommus, bread and carrot purée, black charred carrot, ribbons of dehydrated then rehydrated carrot, the spiced juice used to rehydrate the carrot and fried curry leaves. Both the hommus and purée were smooth and creamy which contrasted well with the almost leathery (in a good way, like the texture of pickles but with more bite) ribbons of rehydrated carrot. I loved the crispy fried curry leaves and the spiced carrot juice too. The only criticism was that we all wanted a spoon to use to slurp up the delicious carrot juice. On a side note, look at that colour!

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Citrus cobbler

This was my favourite soft pairing because of its intense lemony flavour. It was sour, sweet, tart and refreshing all at the same time, and went perfectly with the carrot dish.

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Tea-smoked duck

This was my sister’s favourite dish of the day. The dish consisted of tea-smoked duck breast, stinging nettle purée, charred spring onion, ginger oil and rhubarb juice with a pepita, chili, ginger and nettle salsa. The nettle purée was so different from anything I’d tasted before—it was creamy, sweet, salty with deep earthy notes. The duck was really tender and wasn’t overly smokey (one of my pet peeves is over-smoked meats). The rhubarb juice was sweeter than I expected, but I actually really liked it with the duck and bitter charred spring onion.

At my meeting with Johnon he told me that some dishes come together more quickly than others, and this dish was one of them. He was out one day picking stinging nettle for the kitchen and a badling of ducks waddled passed. He went straight to the kitchen and whipped this dish up with his team.

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Grapefruit and rosemary virgin mojito

The duck was paired with a grapefruit and rosemary virgin mojito. I thought this rosy drink had a good balance of bitterness and sweetness from the grapefruit and savouriness from the rosemary.  The earthiness of the rosemary went also went well with the earthiness of the nettle.

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Lamb

Coffee-rubbed lamb rump served with a walnut purée, fermented celeriac and a beetroot béarnaise. This was both my dad’s favourite dish (he is a coffee fiend), and my mum’s (who doesn’t drink coffee). That is, the coffee rub didn’t have a strong coffee flavour, rather it imparted a subtle but sweet earthiness to the lamb. The lamb itself was so tender we barely needed to chew. The beetroot béarnaise was tart and helped cut through the creamy, earthy walnut puree. The combination of the tender lamb, earthy coffee and walnut and sweet but tart beetroot was just amazing.

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Apple pie

The lamb was paired with an apple pie inspired mock-tail made with fresh apple juice and cinnamon infused syrup. It wasn’t overly sweet and I loved the strong kick of cinnamon.

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French goats’ cheese

The final of our ‘bites’ was a small morsel of ash rind goats’ cheese with dollops of blood plum vinegar, local honey, macadamias and house made lavosh. I’ve never had lavosh before, but I loved it. Sage sprinkle fennel seeds on top of theirs before they bake it, so it gives a slight aniseed flavour which went perfectly with the creamy cheese and plum vinegar.

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Lemon posset

Oh. My. Goodness. This was possibly one of the most beautiful and dainty desserts I’ve eaten in a long time, but not only did it look amazing, it was delicious too. This dish came with a punchy lemon custard, meringue, berries, stewed rhubarb and crumbly citrus shortbread. The lemon custard was both sweet and sour and absolutely delicious. The citrus shortbread was buttery and had beautiful flecks of green and yellow from the lime and lemon zest. The other individual components were simple, yet refined and went perfectly with the lemon custard.

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Turkish delight

The last of the pairings was essentially an iced earl grey tea with notes of rose and strawberry. One of my favourite combos is lemon and rose, so I thought it went really well with the lemon posset and wasn’t too over powering.

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Surprise carrot and hazelnut cake

At the end of our meal, we were surprised with two little complimentary birthday cakes from the kitchen! Although we were completely stuffed, we managed to eat the plate clean. How cute are they!

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This lunch at Sage was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a really long time. The quality and execution of their food is an absolute given, but the relaxed atmosphere and friendly service just topped it off. If you haven’t yet tried Sage, or it’s been a while since you last visited, book a table for your next lunch date!

Details for Sage:

Opening hours:

Tuesday – Saturday

Lunch: 12:00pm – 2:00pm

Dinner: 5:30pm – 10:00pm

Address:

Gorman House Arts Centre, Batman Street, Braddon

Lunch at Soi Noodle Bar

A few weeks ago I was invited to a foodie lunch at Soi Noodle Bar in the city by a fellow foodie friend. Luckily for us we had full reign of the menu, so what you’re about to see is not a normal amount of food considering there was only 5 of us. We ordered about 15 dishes, and managed to almost clean up all the plates – a pretty good effort I think! Soi all
We started with a round of slushies! Cos you know, who doesn’t love a slushy? They offer three different types; lychee with lime and mint, coconut and mango, and watermelon with lime and mint. I got the watermelon one and it was really refreshing.

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Edamame

Who goes to a Japanese restaurant and doesn’t order edamame? I feel like a Japanese feast isn’t complete without these little green gems.

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Spicy tofu

This was my absolute favourite dish of the day. Mainly because we ordered it on a whim and didn’t really expect much of it. Oh boy, am I glad we ordered it. Crispy mouthfuls of flavoursome tofu, topped with a salty miso, chilli and eggplant chutney. I’m salivating just thinking about it… As a starter it comes with 6 bite-sized pieces, so I’d definitely recommend ordering this dish to work up your appetite for the main.

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Soft-shell crab buns

Such a bargain considering how ‘hip’ and overpriced buns can be these days. You get 3 buns for $15, and they’re decently sized too. The soft-shell crab itself was crispy and salty which went well with the wasabi mayo. I would have liked more wasabi in the mayo though, but that’s just a small detail.

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Spanner crab buns

These weren’t as good as the soft-shell crab buns, but they were still yummy. The buns consisted of sweet spanner crab flesh mixed with mayonnaise, pickled red onion and salmon roe. The pickles helped cut through the rich, creamy crab filling and the salmon roe added pops of saltiness.

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Seafood Pancake

Basically a miniature okonomiyaki, hot plate and all! It came topped with okonomiyaki sauce, mayo and dancing bonito flakes. Although I couldn’t quite figure out what kind of seafood it came with, it was still really tasty, and totally brought me back to Japan.

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Takoyaki

I’ve been on the hunt for good takoyaki in Canberra ever since I came back from Japan, and I think I’ve found it. They were gooey on the inside and crispy outside. One serve will get you 7 takoyaki.

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Seafood gyoza

I don’t think I’ve ever met a dumpling I didn’t like, especially when they’ve been panfried to create a deliciously crunchy bottom. These ones were moist and full of flavour. The dish comes with 5 plump dumplings served on a little hotplate.

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Chicken green Thai curry

Unfortunately I didn’t get a good snap of the green curry, but it was by far my favourite main, and second favourite dish overall. Again, it might be because I didn’t have high expectations of any dish that didn’t comprise noodles (considering it is a noodle bar). It was creamy, the veges were crisp, the chicken was moist and there was even a bit of spice to it. I find most places numb the chilli levels to cater to the majority, but not here at Soi. It wasn’t overly spicy, there was just a nice hum of chilli.

Pad Thai

The Pad Thai was probably the most generous in terms of portion size, so this is the dish  to order if you are absolutely ravenous (or just order 3 portions of the spicy tofu). The dish itself was pretty good but was a bit dry. I would have liked more sauce or some lemon to squeeze on top. On the visual side though, it comes in an amazing, vibrant blue bowl.Soi Pad Thai

Laksa

Sadly, I didn’t like the laksa at all. The soup was oddly sweet and on the thin side. I was also surprised to find thin rice paper noodles instead of vermicelli, and no Hokkein noodles! A laksa without Hokkein noodles is blasphemy if you ask me. Having said that, I am partial to the laksa from the Dickson Noodle House, so I might be a tad biased. Sorry, all the individual photos I took of the laksa were dreadful, but it is pictured on the feature image above (top left corner).

Shoyu ramen with chicken

Not going to lie, this wasn’t the best ramen I’ve had. I find that soy sauce based ramen can be a bit flavourless, and generally go for miso or pork based broths. The chicken was moist though, and I liked the soft boiled egg.

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Soi chicken breast katsu

The dish comes with crispy strips of panko-crumbed chicken breast, served on a bed of steamed black rice. I thought it was a little overpriced ($24) considering it was just chicken and rice, but I have to say it was a very generous portion. The chicken was cooked well, and I thought the black rice was a cool and different addition. Soi katsu

It turns out that Soi Noodle Bar do some really great non-noodle dishes! So next time you go there, try something different. My top recommendations are the Spicy Tofu, Soft-shell Crab Buns, Seafood Pancake, Takoyaki and Green Thai Curry.

Details for Soi Noodle Bar:

Opening hours:

Everyday

11:00am – 10:00pm

Address:

Canberra Centre Shopping Centre, Shop EG08, Bunda Street, Canberra

Brunch at Coffee Lab

I had heard so many great things from Coffee Lab in the city, so I was really excited to try them out last week. My good friend was down from Queensland, it was relatively early in the morning (11 is early right?) and we were in need of some caffeine and good food – it was the perfect opportunity to hit up one of Canberra’s up-and-coming cafes.

As soon as you walk through the doors you can feel the über-hip-Canberra-cafe-vibe. From the warm wooden panelling scaling the wall, vibrant hanging green foliage to a large communal coffee table with newspapers and magazines strewn across the surface, the cafe just invites you in to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee.

We started with a round of tea and coffee. I’m generally a flat white drinker but was mistakenly given a latte. It was really no big deal seeing as though I don’t see a big difference between the two. I guess one plus is that lattes look better in photos! The latte was smooth and definitely hit the spot.

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The First Frost

I love mushrooms, and after hearing good reviews about this dish from my sister I had to try it. The dish came with mushrooms two ways; roasted and sautéed. They were nicely cooked with a subtle garlicky and herb flavour which wasn’t too overpowering. I was really happy to see some enoki mushrooms thrown in amongst the toppling mountain which is different from a lot of other cafes – big thumbs up for that. It also came with zucchini ribbons, alfalfa sprouts and lemon, all of which added a crisp freshness to the dish. The marinated feta was a little surprise underneath the mound of mushrooms as I had missed that detail when reading the menu. All I can say is that cheese makes everything better – one of the only philosophies I stand by in life. The portion was incredibly generous, and so it is decently priced at $16.00. I also added two poached eggs for $4.00, but had I known how big the serving was I would have been fine without them!

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No Ragrets

My friend ordered the No Ragrets which I found out later is one of their best sellers. It comes with a cornmeal hash brown, smoked Piallago bacon, sautéed kale, poached eggs and a generous drizzle of James Brown sauce. My friend described it as a “fancy eggs benny” and loved it. She said she doesn’t normally like kale due to its bitterness, but actually enjoyed it in this dish because it was quite subtle (and perhaps drowning in delicious hollandaise-style sauce). Priced at $17.00 I will definitely try this next time I come in.
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Look at that yolk-porn…
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Dillon You Son of a…

My other friend wasn’t too hungry and so she went for a lighter option of your classic avo on toast. Coffee Lab’s version comes with avocado rolled in black and white sesame seeds, marinated feta, chilli flakes, alfalfa sprouts and lime served on sourdough toast. She thoroughly enjoyed the addition of feta and chilli, so at $15.50, it was a hit. 

Avocado

I really enjoyed the food and coffee at Coffee Lab and am keen to try more of their menu. If you haven’t already tried them out, lock them in for your next brunch date!

Details for Coffee Lab:

Opening hours:

Weekdays

7:00am to 4:00pm

Weekends

8:00am to 3:30pm

Address:

26 Narellan Pl, Canberra

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