OnRed, aptly perched on the top of Red Hill, is a retro architectural beacon and a bit of a Canberra landmark. It’s also a restaurant remaking a mark for itself as a food destination. It’s come a long way in recent years, but a few tweaks are needed to get it right on top of the hill.
Built in 1964, the restaurant has been variously known as Jean Pierre’s, Mitzi’s or The Carousel, (the latter probably the reason I often have to remind myself it doesn’t actually revolve). After sitting idle for some years, the building was reclaimed and relaunched in 2007 by a Canberra culinary brother and sister, Ben and Jodie Johnson, as OnRed. The number of diners seem to attest to a pretty successful re-ignition of this historic structure.
Entering the space-age looking building is a little like entering a time warp, especially as you wind your way up the terrazzo-tiled spiral staircase (I’m sure they used to feature that speckled tile in public toilets many years ago). But as you reach the top, the floor bursts into a fresh expanse of space, all clean and bright with light timbers and white cafe-style chairs. And then there’s the view – almost 360 degrees of it across Canberra through the multi-facetted, all-surrounding plate glass panels. The aluminium frames look as if they need a good scrub, and the glass itself is quite marked in places, but I guess that’s the price to pay for heritage. Watch the scenes turn from glowing greens to sparkly nightscapes as you dine.
The menu is designed with sharing in mind with a choice of (largish) entree-sized courses or a couple of share options. You can choose 3, 4 or 5 courses ($70, $82, $94). Unsurprisingly, the waiter suggested opting for 4 or 5, though our choice of 3 had us fully sated. Big eaters may not feel the same.
The menu looks good, and there’s even a vego menu for the non-carnivorous, but when the food arrives,the flavours are a little disappointing – or more accurately, the lack of them – in places. The wild barramundi with purple slaw, nam jim and rice noodle was nicely presented and well balanced, but the scallops with fennel and plum, radish and apple (sounds so good on paper) didn’t live up to the description. The scallops were quite bland and needed a real lift. A donated spot of my fellow diner’s’jam nim’ helped, but the chef should have been able to work that out him/her self. (I understand original owner and chef, sister Jodie, has now moved on to the Kingston Foreshore leaving Ben behind to run the show.)
Likewise the next selections when delivered didn’t meet menu-led expectations. The pork loin with sweet potato with a tad of onion and spinach was well cooked but without much life or flavour. Like Mum’s Sunday roast from years gone by, but not what you expect from fine dining. Not even saved by the piece of pork crackling which looked more like a prawn cracker accompaniment from an Asian restaurant rather than the real deal deliciously-crunchy-but-horribly-fatty-bad-for-you pork crackling. The duck, with mushroom, celeriac and kale, should have rung my bells, but it too suffered from a lack of flavour pops. Nicely cooked, nicely plated, but just missing a zing of flavour to give it a wow.
The kitchen staff are clearly putting effort into the food presentation, featuring plates by Canberra’s own Bison pottery, though colour choices were sometimes a little flat and didn’t allow the food to star.
The wine list is adequate but relatively restricted, particularly if ordering by the glass, so often the case. It featured late vintages, with only one red wine (a 2009 Cab Merlot) older than 2012. A broader range of wine by the glass in Canberra restaurants would have us opting not to BYO more often.
Chocolate rarely tempts me for dessert (too much, too late), but OnRed‘s Seven Textures of Chocolate was too much to resist. There was tempered chocolate, mousse, soil, crackle, ganache, sorbet and white chocolate sponge (count them) and it was excellent, even though the septuplet was let down by the stodgey sponge. The pannacotta was light and lovely, lifted nicely with fruit cubes and the crunch of almonds and tuille. Our chosen desserts displayed more understanding of flavour and texture combinations than the savoury plates.
The staff were efficient and friendly, even if their jean-clad attire was a little laid-back for the casual but modern feel achieved in the main space. Likewise, big wine glasses and quality cutlery were at hand, but my napkin was decidedly tired and pilled and needed to be popped straight in the bin.
Sweeping views of Canberra and architectural history aside, the food ideals are very sound but OnRed needs a little massaging if it wants to be among Canberra ‘must do’ restaurants. A bit more zing and flavour oomph would help to make it more memorable.
Perhaps OnRed’s younger sibling, the revamped Little Brother cafe, situated downstairs will have all chimes clanging.