Lilotang | Barton, Canberra

The Chairman Group has been one of Canberra’s hospitality mainstays over the last two decades. Since opening in 1992, the iconic Chairman & Yip restaurant in Civic has been serving up refined yet honest Cantonese food, attracting a loyal following of politicians and suits along the way. In 2008, the group (headed by Josiah Li) added the Lanterne Rooms to their stable, followed by Malamay in 2012; and both restaurants have been great successes.

Li’s latest venture, LiloTang, focuses on modern Japanese cuisine, and opened its doors to the public in January 2015. It’s located in Barton’s Burbury Hotel and sits just two doors down from Malamay (with the door in between them being the hotel’s entrance), giving guests at the Burbury not one, but two incredible dining options without having to leave the building. Times sure have changed from when the hotel restaurant was just a buffet of overcooked roast meats and mushy veg!

With Japanese being one of my favourite cuisines (if not my favourite), it was a no-brainer for my loved ones to book a table at LiloTang for a birthday treat. I’d already read that the head chef had previously worked at Nobu and that they had a proper robata (traditional Japanese grill) in the kitchen, so needless to say I couldn’t wait to go!

Walking into the restaurant, I’m surprised by the fit-out and décor. I was expecting it to be similar to Malamay’s darker, more formal interior; but the large timber panels, wooden furniture, and exposed ceiling make for a much more relaxed vibe. I didn’t manage to get any photos of them, but there are also cool manga prints dotted around the restaurant, with the same print replicated on the front of the menu.

LiloTang’s menu is divided into four simple sections – smalls (including the robata dishes), mains, vegetables and dessert. The dishes sound modern and sophisticated, and feature ingredients that aren’t as common in Canberra’s Japanese restaurants. It’s not often that I want to try every single dish on the menu, but this is one of those times, and so the easiest option is to go for the 8-dish tasting menu ($80pp). 

The drinks menu is impressive as well, with a good range of Japanese beers (including a koshihikari rice lager), 22 sakes, and a decent wine selection. If I could have, I’d try everything on this menu too! We end up going for a local wine (I’m digging Canberra region wines at the moment) and picking the 2008 Quarry Hill Pinot Noir. I’m not associated with the winery but it’s a brilliant drop and I’d highly recommend giving this one a go – it’s only $18/bottle through their website (http://quarryhill.com.au/products/2008-pinot-noir).

While we wait for our first course, we’re given a bowl of edamame to tide us over. I love when restaurants do this – not because it’s free, but because it kicks off your eating experience and gets your tastebuds working without having to wait 15-20 minutes for that first dish. Of course, it helps when the free food is delicious, which this is! The edamame have plenty of flavour as they’ve been covered in a bit of soy and Japanese chili powder and quickly tossed in a hot work. You can actually taste the wok hei – which is a Chinese term that loosely translates to ‘the breath of the wok’ and refers to the extra flavour that a hot wok imparts on food. 

Edamame with soy and Japanese chili

The proper tasting menu starts off with two sashimi dishes – Sashimi Tuna, Avocado, Wasabi and Okra, which is presented in a crispy bird’s nest; and Umami-jime Snapper Sashimi, Josephine Pear and Heirloom Tomato.

 The tuna dish has a mixture of cubed avocado and mashed avocado, with cubes of tuna mixed and hidden pockets of wasabi mixed in. The tuna is really fresh and delicious, but I feel that the presentation is a bit clumsy with the mashed avocado making it look a little less refined.

The snapper sashimi, on the other hand, is plated up beautifully and looks quintessentially Japanese. The plate holding the food sits, off-centre, on a larger black plate, with a couple of sheets of ‘LiloTang’ paper in between them. There’s a few different parts of the snapper in this dish, which have slightly different textures and flavours, and they’re all delicate and have great flavour. The heirloom tomatoes remind us just how bland the ones in our supermarkets are – one of these small heirloom tomatoes would easily have the same amount of flavour as 6 or 7 large supermarket tomatoes (I know, they’re different varieties – but just to illustrate my point!).

Sashimi Tuna, Avocado, Wasabi and Okra

Umami-jime Snapper Sashimi, Josephine Pear and Heirloom Tomato

Arriving next is the plate of Roast Umami Vegetables with Orange Miso and Orange Pot, which features cubes of carrot, pumpkin daikon and shitake mushroom presented in a hollowed-out orange. It’s certainly an intriguing dish that looks great served on the long black plate. The waiter tells us that the vegetables are all roasted individually (presumably as they have different cooking times) and then combined at the end with the orange miso sauce. It’s evident that a lot of care is put into this dish as the vegetables are all soft without being overcooked, and there’s a notable presence of ‘umami’ flavour.

Roast Umami Vegetables with Orange Miso and Orange Pot

The Pork Belly Skewers with Yuzu Kosho Miso are one of the dishes that have been slowly and delicately cooked on the robata, sitting above coals that reach 400°.  The pork belly is beautifully soft, with some nice char marks that give a smoky flavour.

 The Chargrilled Prawns with Shiso Amazu and Wakame are served with a couple of chargrilled prawn heads on the plate. They seem too prominent to be just a garnish, so I bite into one to see what it’s like. I’m pleased to find that it’s crispy and full of flavour, and nothing like when you unexpectedly bite into a stray bit of prawn shell. The prawn’s ‘brains’ have been removed from the head so you can just eat the whole thing, but I leave the eyes cause that’s just a bit weird...

The prawns themselves are juicy and meaty, and there’s a decent amount of wakame seaweed sitting under the prawns. I’m not in love with the shiso amazu (a Japanese ‘sweet and sour’ sauce) straight away, but it grows on me the more I have it.

Pork Belly Skewers with Yuzu Kosho Miso 

Chargrilled Prawns with Shiso Amazu and Wakame 

With three dishes remaining, it’s time for two of the big hitters to come out – the Black Cod Saikyo Miso Yaki, and the Duck Breast Sukiyaki with Tempura Egg. If we hadn’t gone with the set menu, these were both things that I would definitely have ordered.

The black cod is easily one of the best pieces of fish I’ve ever eaten - it has so much natural flavour and the saikyo miso glaze works really well with it without overpowering the flavour of the fish. It’s my favourite dish of the night and I could definitely eat a whole plate of this to myself!

Note: After visiting LiloTang, I started asking fishmongers whether they could get black cod as I was keen to replicate this dish. Unfortunately, it’s listed as a vulnerable species and recreational/commercial fishing of black cod is prohibited in Australian waters.   

Black Cod Saikyo Miso Yaki

The duck breast is called beautifully and sits in a sweet and salty sukiyaki sauce, which is more like a broth. As I carve open the tempura egg to let the runny yolk out, I remember that sukiyaki is always served with a raw egg (that you dip your meat in before eating), and suddenly it makes sense why this tempura egg is a part of this dish.

 The last dish in the tasting menu is Chargrilled Cabbage, Anchovy Garlic Dressing and Semi Dried Tomato. It’s simple and after the complex flavours before it, a good way to end the meal. For some unknown reason I was expecting the semi dried tomatoes to be oily and garlicky (like the ones you buy in the jar!), but fortunately they must have been dried in-house and were sweet and slightly acidic.

Duck Breast Sukiyaki with Tempura Egg

Chargrilled Cabbage, Anchovy Garlic Dressing and Semi Dried Tomato

Not being able to hold ourselves back from dessert, we also order the Sticky Mochi-mochi Tofu with Green Tea Ice Cream, and the Roast Persimmon, Yuzu Ice Cream, Walnuts and Umeshu.

The mochi-mochi tofu is the better of the two desserts – it’s clean and simple, and the flavour of the tofu pairs really well with the green tea ice cream. The roast persimmon dish is served in a hot bowl with a warm syrup, so the ice cream’s already melting by the time it’s hit the table and I feel like I need to get through it quickly before it all turns to liquid. I really love the flavour of yuzu as it’s quite unlike any other citrus we normally have here, but it was lacking in the ice cream and wasn’t able to contrast with the sweet syrup.

Sticky Mochi-mochi Tofu with Green Tea Ice Cream

Roast Persimmon, Yuzu Ice Cream, Walnuts and Umeshu

LiloTang definitely brings a much-needed kick into Canberra’s restaurant scene. It’s not that we don’t have good Japanese restaurants here – but none that push the envelope of what Japanese food is all about and what we (as diners) should expect. I like that they’ve gone with a less formal approach as it suits the style of the food, especially given the nature of the shared dishes.

  

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