I do love me a redemption story, and last Friday night turned out to be the biggest 180 I’ve done in terms of opinions on a restaurant here in Canberra.
Just over a year ago I went to 86 in Braddon with friends to celebrate a birthday, and the experience was simply awful. All of us were in agreement that the service was rude and pretentious and the food was awkward and expensive. It was one of the worst dining experiences I’d had in a higher end dining establishment in Canberra.
Skip forward to last Friday night – I’d heard through my fellow bloggers that 86 had improved its food and its service. I was stubborn about returning for as long as I could, but eventually the whispers became too much (and too positive) and I decided it was time to give 86 another go.
I mentioned to Nat from CapitalFoodJournal and her girlfriend A that I was interested in trying it out again, and since they had never been, we locked in a catch up dinner for 6:30pm. Despite being an early sitting time, when I arrived the restaurant was already busy and noisy.
I was sat at our table for three and while I waited for my dining companions, the hostess chatted to me for a while. She was funny, friendly and knowledgeable about their menu – I had the pleasure of interacting with her a few times throughout the night and she was fantastic (she even complimented my pink hair and tattoos, and then told us we were cool because we were taking photos of food). Compared to last year’s sullen and pretentious service, she was a delight. We were also served by another server for most of the night and she was also polite and helpful, if a little standoffish – I think she was just a little shy.
The menu at 86 is written daily on blackboards along the wall of the restaurant, and meals are rubbed out as they run out – this is something that hadn’t changed from my last visit. Thankfully we were there for the earlier sitting, so everything was still available. Having the menu written on a blackboard is good for menu control, but not great for people with bad eyesight and people who have been sat with their back to the wall. A lot of people walked past our table as they paced back and forth reading the menu (and relaying it back to their tables) – I was positioned well enough that I was able to read it out for the table from my seat.
We decided on an entrée each and then two meat based shared mains and a salad. For the entrée Nat and I both got the Duck Buns and A got the pork terrine.
I didn’t try the pork terrine, as I was saving stomach space, but both Nat and A said it was really good.
We received our salad well before the duck buns, and were convinced they had forgotten about them – but we flagged down the hostess who bought them out promptly. The duck buns were soft and flavoursome, the cucumber giving a fresh burst and the sauce providing a decent kick. I really liked this dish, and the night was off to a good start. The buns were $8 each, which is pricey, but they were delicious.
Our salad contained cauliflower, raisins, mint and chillies – it was really good! The flavours worked really well together and it was an easy salad to share. Another tick.
The food at 86 is staggered, so you don’t have too many plates on the table at one time. So we had a chance to pick at the salad before the first of our mains arrived – (something and) mustard beef cheek. Honestly I cannot remember for the life of me what else was with the mustard!
The beef was melt in your mouth slow cooked, it fell away in perfect morsels. It was fantastic. The radish salad worked well to cut through the deep flavours of the beef and provided a welcome coolness. And once again, it was cut in to appropriate portion sizes and proved perfect for sharing.
I was full by this point (I have a small stomach, remember), but when the ‘Blackened Chicken with buttermilk slaw’ was out down in front of us, my eyes over took my stomach.
The chicken was cooked perfectly, it wasn’t too dry and while it was “blackened” in parts, it was not burnt. The sweet barbeque sauce it was covered in was really moreish and I must admit to licking my fingers to get the saucey goodness. The slaw was creamy and crunchy and once again gave a freshness to what could have been a heavy dish – 86 seems to have perfected this balance well.
And because I am an idiot, I decided to order the famous 86 Popcorn Sundae dessert – by this stage I was already very full, but the appeal of all of my favourite things (popcorn, peanut brittle, salted caramel) was too great.
I didn’t finish the dessert, but thanks to the fact that ice cream melts in my stomach, I was able to give it a red hot go. The mixture of textures – crunchy, soft, chewy – are really what makes this dish, everything fits well together and you can really see why it’s so renowned; it just works. It is sweet, but the popcorn and peanuts gives it a savoury edge. I was just about ready to burst by the time I gave up.
I was really impressed with 86 this time around. Everything was improved – the service, the food, the atmosphere. I can see now why it’s one of Canberra’s hottest dining establishments and I will definitely be back!