Review: The Ginger Room at Old Parliament House

by The Editor

The Ginger Room

Remember two years ago when the whole Masterchef thing went ballistic, and it seemed every Australian was in front of the television at 7.30 every night?  If yours were two of the thousands of Canberra eyeballs glued to the screen in 2009, chances are you would have been subject to endless repetition of the budding romance between a young couple who seemed to spend every social moment in the Parliamentary Triangle.  It was the Ginger Catering advertising series, a campaign managing only to achieve the impossible of turning me off the idea of eating any sort food even though I was watching a cooking show.

It was therefore, with some trepidation, Little Spoon and I made our way around the back of Old Parliament House on a cold winter’s night to dine at the Ginger Room.  Located in the old Member’s Dining room, under the guiding hand of Janet Jeffs, the restaurant has been one of the slow burners of the Canberra dining scene since 2007.

(Image:  Gourmet Traveller)

The entrance is a lot less grand than the setting may lead you to believe, and the shock of the fluorescent red lighting at reception assaults the retinas of those moving from the dark no-man’s-land between the New and Old Parliaments.  However, once in the dining room proper, the room feels soft and comfortable with white tablecloths, carpeted floor, a high ceiling and original doors and windows from the early days of the National Capital.

While being seated, I noticed the three daily specials printed elegantly on a thin slip of paper.  Of note is the ‘chef’s whim’, a daily dish beautifully described as a kind of daily fancy rather than sounding like whatever was left in the fridge.  The other point of difference in the Ginger Room’s menu is the decision to divide the dishes into meat, vegetables and seafood, with no single offering described as entrée or main.  The fixed price menu (2 courses $49, 3 courses $59, 4 courses $69, 5 courses $79) allows diners to construct a menu of their own length and style, dependent upon taste and/or budget.  For those with a larger appetite or budget, the 7-course degustation menu (min. 2 people – $99 or $139 with matched wines) makes all the decisions for you.

Our excitement over the menu was tempered somewhat by a lack of attention for our drinks orders, so late in fact we’d sorted out how we were going to order from the unconventional menu.  Eventually though, we were settled in for the evening, with a bottle of Pinot Grigio at our disposal and food on the way.

The entrees of yellow fin tuna with red pepper red pepper crumbs, yoghurt, anchovy, and blue swimmer crab with chilli, ginger, kaffir lime and betel leaf was an immediate expression of Janet Jeffs creativity.  Little Spoon’s pick, served in the hollowed body of the crab and with betel leaves to wrap the contents of the shell made for a delicious and  playful dish.

A large function hosting a Christmas in July celebration in the function area next door may have been the reason for constantly distracted service, but the pace of the dishes could not be faulted.  Mains arrived without either dreading or missing them, maintaining a steady pace as far as the food was concerned.

For mains, a tian of shredded oxtail, potato aioli and crisp parmesan (me) and quail in puff pastry nest, celeriac cream and saffron eschallots (Little Spoon) was portioned only slightly larger than the entrees, but contained a quality best savored than lost through overindulgence.  My oxtail in particular managed to at once be rich and delicate, thanks to the combination of meat and Parmesan.

Having been tempted by the cheese cart patrolling the room complete with four whole wheels of the cheeses on offer, we requested a hard milk cheese to enjoy with the last of our Grenache.  Here again, the Ginger Room served up a lesson many of Canberra’s finer restaurants could learn.  The plate arrived with such generous portions of biscuits, quince paste and fruits as to not have to ration out portions in fear of not making it to make it to the finish line,

A word of advise for the ladies, be strategic around your toilet breaks.  While the men’s facilities are located conveniently near the main dining room, a trip to the ladies’ requires a GPS, and whole courses of dinner could be missed on the return excursion.  Regardless, it’s a treat to wander the halls of such an important building, and in the quiet of night it almost feels as though the ghosts of Governments past are revealing themselves in quiet whispers.

All in all, Janet Jeffs is showing the sense of adventure and sophistication that made her previous outings such a success.  While it took a long time after opening to finally visit the Ginger Room, with such a clever menu and historic setting, there is no excuse not to return before too long.

Download the Ginger Room’s Report Card AUG 2011