While 2004 is hardly that long ago, it is in the veritable mists of time in respect to how much the wine-dispensing game has changed in Melbourne. Back then, James Broadway, an importer of Italian wine and Slow Food evangelist, and chef Brigitte Hafner, who had worked with Neil Perry, Kylie Kwong, Guy Grossi, Greg…
Aubergine chef and owner Ben Willis, a Canberran by origin, circled back to his home town after a near-decade cooking around the world. Aubergine was already an institution then, when Ben and his wife Andrea took over the business in 2008, but they propelled it in a decidedly upward arc, with it long considered Canberra’s finest restaurant, claiming Two Chefs Hats in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide every year for the last eight years, amongst many other vaunted accolades. Aubergine is certainly at the finer end of the spectrum, though Ben points out that while they focus on old-fashioned hospitality, they also modernise the process, as they do with both the stripped back but warmly tactile space. Tablecloths surrender to the warmth of polished timber, dark walls and charcoal carpet cocoon, and the high-backed chairs of old have been replaced with a mid-century vibe, as has the cabinetry.
There’s nothing stuffy about Aubergine, just a cool refinement that runs right through it. Ben works closely with local producers to craft his seasonally focused and ever-evolving four-course menu in this dinner only operation. The wine list approaches 600 listings, with a remarkable lack of bias, featuring wines of all stripes, and though it certainly celebrates local wines–including a 14-vintage Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier vertical–the list is neither characterised, nor bound by them. The selection happily trips through the old world–France, Austria, Italy,Germany, Spain, Portugal–and its most celebrated styles and producers, as well as those less familiar. It carries ‘classic’ wines, and those more of the moment, with skin-contact whites given ample platform. Sake also gets more than a token nod.A very democratic list, for sure–deep and intricately detailed.