AU ABROAD

Eating with the AU: Lilotang - Barton (Canberra)

I was told that whenever a new restaurant opens up in Canberra they end up getting absolutely slammed with customers, irrespective of whether the place is any good or not. In that sense, brand new venue Lilotang need not be concerned about attracting hungry locals, partly because there aren't many Japanese restaurants in our nation's capital; let alone many on this level. It's the repeat customers that are the real challenge for a lot of new venues; Lilotang won't be having any issues there either. Co-owner Po Yang Chia and Head Chef Shunsuke Ota (ex-Nobu, Melbourne. Yes, THAT Nobu) are certainly bringing their A-game to Canberra, delivering intriguing and innovative Japanese food that is well worth marking Lilotang on your map of Canberra with a giant 'X' (because it's treasure, get it).

After a three-hour bus ride, I cabbed it on over and shacked up in a brand new apartment at the Burbury Hotel & Apartments. Lilotang is the luxury hotel's newest venue, a stone's throw away from Burbury's super popular Malamay, the one-hatted restaurant which shares an umbrella with Lilotang - Chairman Group. Lilotang is closer to the main lobby of the hotel, with the entrance just right beside those large spinning doors that greet each and every one of the hotel's guests.

To widen the scope even more: this is all part of the Realm Precinct, the cultural hub of Barton which not only houses Burbury, Lilotang, and Malamay, but also popular destinations like Maples+Clove, Ostani, and Canberra's only AAA rated 5 star hotel, Hotel Realm.

I ducked in and out of some of the venue's in this precinct and Lilotang remained the most engaging in terms of it's fit-out. There's a gorgeous overall look with pockets of pink, orange, and bright yellow with decorative timber dividers breaking the large space apart into smaller areas. There's some manga and pop culture references throughout, but everything is kept very delicate and subtle, nothing is overstated and all adds to a very pleasing, comfortable, and inviting atmosphere. Which is exactly where Chia tells me he wanted the fit-out to sit: somewhere between casual and fine, but more towards the casual side. Such an effective ambiance is certainly achieved here, and it's instantly endearing.

At a long table temporarily set up where the front bar area is select media sat down with Chia and were taken through just some of the creative dishes Ota has put on the menu. Although there's a healthy range of seafood dishes, and some truly excellent vegetarian ones, it's the meat-based items that really have that flavourful punch behind it thanks to the nice, long Robata grill that sits in the kitchen, over hard-to-find Binchōtan charcoal. Because of this, Ota gets to play around with the ancient Japanese grilling method and deliver some great meat dishes that are driven by the significant difference the Robata makes.

With the enhanced natural flavours of the meat, dishes like the Chicken Meat Ball with Creamy Egg ($13.50) - a dish from Ota's childhood - and Chicken Thigh with Homemade Yakitori Sauce ($11) are worth far more than the asking price.

Let's start at the beginning though; our preview of Lilotang began with a very well presented and refreshing Umami-jime Snapper Sashimi with White Peach and Heirloom Tomato ($15.50). This is a dish that plays around with flavours in an almost scientific way. The sweet cubes of peach is the game-changing ingredient here, playing with the fresh cured snapper to give you a really clean, pleasant taste.

Continuing with the small dishes we move to something smoky with Chargrilled Cold Eggplant with Creamy Sesame Sauce ($12.50). The smoky taste lingers here and the eggplant has a nice crunch to it while the creamy sesame sauce adds a nice, sweet flavour. Although this was the least memorable 'small' dish it still spoke highly of Ota's work playing around with strong, dramatic flavours.

A salad with a difference comes in the form of Sashimi Tuna and Avocado with Wasabi Okra Soy ($14.50). Anything with small slices of Okra always goes down well but place it in between the classic combo of tuna and avocado, inside an avocado half shell and you have something truly special, add the kick of the wasabi and the fact that you can scrap off extra avocado should you want to.

My favourite non-meat dish of the night was the Roast Umami Vegetables with Orange Miso in Orange Pot ($11.50). The miso is dripping all over the vegetables, and whether it's carrots, pumpkin, or daikon there's a complete explosion of flavour as you dig this combo out of an orange. This is another instance where you can use your dish however you like, so if you want to add a more citrus flavour just simply use the orange top for a little extra juice.

The Nagoya Style Quail Kara-age w Sweet Sansho Soy ($18) is a nice, welcome change from your typical Chicken Kara-age, soaking in milk overnight and then deep fried. What you get is soft, tender meat that has a great starchy taste to it and a nice texture thanks to the sesame seeds. The dish is also available with a spicier side, for the same price.

The few salad options on the menu are done well, particularly in the case of the aforementioned avocado dish, and the Chargrilled Baby Octopus and Rocket with Karashi Su Miso ($14.50). You'll find spicy, sweet, and sour on this plate with the soft baby octopus pairing up well with the scattered miso, just make sure you soak it up well to get all the flavour out of this.

Cauliflower, Walnut Dengaku Miso ($7.50) and Turnip, Sansho Salt ($8.50) are both cheap options cooked using the Robata Grill, each bringing their own textures to the table and serving as great sides for the smaller meat dishes.

The aforementioned Chicken Thigh with Inherited Homemade Yakitori Sauce ($11) are several skewers of powerful, rich meat, fully showing what a difference having a Robata Grill makes. The Pork Belly with Yuzu Kosho Miso ($9.50)

Chicken Meat Balls and Creamy Egg ($13.50) is undoubtedly going to be one of the most popular dishes at Lilotang. The egg is rich and thick and the chicken meat balls are gigantic, blend the two so the yolk is running all over the juicy meatballs and you'll likely be making this a tradition.

Moving onto the more expensive mains you have Chargrilled Prawn with Shiso Amazu ($33.5), giant split vessels of succulent, rich flesh that is as addictive as anything else on the menu. The key to the distinctive flavour here is the Shiso Amazu which is a Japanese herb with a bit of a kick to it, seeping into the prawn meat, of which there is plenty.

The Chargrilled Wagyu Sirloin marinated in Japanese Herb Miso ($48) is the most expensive thing on the menu, but also the most stylish. There's two big pieces of wagyu here, thick and cooked with the Robata. Cut this meat down to mouthfuls and use them to mop up the beautiful Japanese Herb Miso to get the most out of this dish.

There are only two dessert options on the menu and both are world's apart from each other. There's the savoury with the Houji Tea Smooth Pudding with Sweet Potato ($12.50), served in a cute little bowl. There's a smooth, pleasant texture here but it's definitely an acquired taste as many traditional Japanese desserts are. More in the vein of contemporary Japanese desserts is the sweet and savoury Sticky Mochi-mochi Tofu with Brown Syrup and Green Tea Ice Cream ($12.50).

Chef Ota has come up with a menu that sticks out in Canberra's bustling dining scene, drawing upon both traditional methods of Japanese cooking and a nice contemporary touch that is fun, theatrical in presentation, and rewarding in taste. It's certainly worth the three hours drive down to Canberra as more and more people discover gems like this scattered around Australia's capital.

Lilotang

Address: The Burbury Hotel. Burbury Close, Barton ACT 2600
Contact: 02 6173 2700
Website: www.lilotang.com.au