Dispense with ideas about white tablecloths, this is fine dining that feels comfortable and inviting. It also makes sense considering Monster is still what some might consider a “hotel restaurant”, catering without discrimination to corporate lunches, quick meals and crowds who want to settle in for the night with a drink in hand.
Likewise, the menu designed by executive chef Paul Wilson is currently doing things a little differently. Inspired by rising consciousness about our modern diet’s environmental impact and consumers who are actively seeking out the sustainable, Monster is currently a herbivore. (If you were lucky enough to dine at the sadly now closed vegan restaurant Paperbark in Sydney, consider Monster her cool interstate cousin.)
Announced last year, Monster Kitchen’s entirely plant-based “Year of Veg” menu offers up plenty of local and seasonal ingredients (many Asian in origin) treated with a carefully applied modern sensibility. Visible deliberation over whether to go the set menu or à la carte route leads our very charismatic host, the hospitality veteran and co-owner of Blackbird bar Marcellus 'Mars' Heleta, to craft a “best-of” lineup—and away we go.
A selection of small dishes set the tone, starting with housemade brioche with porcini mushroom veloute that is so umami-rich and delicious it’s almost absurd. Likewise, an heirloom tomato consomme with housemade lavosh crackers tastes like concentrated summer and leaves one wondering… how did Monster Kitchen source such delicious tomatoes in the middle of a frosty Canberra winter? (Hydroponics are the potential answer offered up by Mars.)
Alongside them come profiterole-like pastries, stuffed with fondue and dusted with truffle shavings. They’re lovely, despite relying more on cosy flavours than textural perfection—please consider this high praise from someone who doesn’t give a damn about regular profiteroles.
Next, the standout of the whole evening arrives—a watermelon “sashimi” with avocado and wasabi mousse, wakame cracker and garden radish. I often think of set menus as a chef’s magnum opus, where they can tell whatever culinary tale they’d like, no matter how complicated or obscure it might be. The painstakingly dehydrated and rehydrated watermelon takes on such an intriguing texture, with the seaweed cracker further enhancing the ersatz fish, you have to wonder what the ‘drafts’ of this dish might have looked like. Personally, we found this different and delicious but can imagine mileage might vary.
Heartier dishes like the caramelised cauliflower steak with miso, shitake and oyster mushroom, pillowy ricotta gnudi in a flavourful romesco sauce and perfectly roasted baby carrots are sure to be crowdpleasers. However, one thing that does strike as something to note about this buzzy spot is the spread of dishes that are served at an ambient temperature—a reminder, our visit was in winter and it’s Canberra.
For this reason, while it’s certainly entertaining to watch a crisp slab of Hokkaido pumpkin get the brûlée treatment via a culinary blowtorch, the cool dish with the texture of set-custard feels slightly out of place. Other dishes, like the grilled kohlrabi with peas and broad beans offer up very pleasing textural experiences (the way the juice of the kohlrabi mixes with the buttery broth it’s served in is fantastic), but again, seem like they might be better suited to summer?
A huge draw if you’re not so fussed on food is, of course, the wine list. It’s Monster Kitchen and Bar after all. Local wines are showcased with pride, alongside an ample international selection. All of the wines we sample during the evening are delicious—trust in the matched beverage pairings and you won’t be disappointed.
We're particularly surprised and impressed by the 2019 Collector Chardonnay, which is lighter and more complex than many. Chardonnay fans who enjoy the feeling of an oak barrel hitting their palate might be less enthusiastic. A 2019 Gatti Piero Moscato Di Asti tastes like sweet, teenage joy and is simply very fun to drink alongside Monster Kitchen’s delicious desserts.
Monster Kitchen and Bar’s unique, bold approach to flavours are what make it so exciting as both a "destination restaurant" and a more casual dining spot. Thus, it’s hard to condemn any somewhat risky or left-field dish choices—to be clear nothing even comes close to “bad” but some things seem like they could be finessed. Couple some clear culinary triumphs with outstanding service, a cool atmosphere and an evolving menu, and you have a recipe for many repeat visits.
The writer was a guest of Monster Kitchen and Bar.