Review: ARIA (Brisbane, QLD)

Eagle Street Pier
45 Eagle Street
Brisbane QLD 4000
+61 7 3233 2555
http://www.ariarestaurant.com/brisbane

Brisbane’s dining scene continues to surprise me and so far, no restaurant has surprised me more so than ARIA. Yup, celebrity chef Matt Moran’s Brisbane offshoot that has received a handful of negative to mediocre reviews. I LIKED IT. Who would have thought…

When it came to organising dinner with Canberra girls Rachi and Natalie on the final evening of the Eat Drink Blog conference weekend, we had a very limited pool of restaurants to choose from. After all, a lot of Brisbane’s upmarket restaurants closed on Sundays. ARIA happened to be one of the very few that we circled and after a bit of disagreeing, we finally settled on ARIA (apologies to Rachi who wasn’t initially down with the idea).

Because we’re approaching old age, we opted for the very early sitting of 5:30PM. When I rang up to make the booking, I was told that this sitting was limited to two hours as there would be another group taking our spot afterwards – essentially, this meant that we weren’t able to order either of the chef’s set course dinner. That was totally fine with us, I had been planning to go a la carte anyway.

ARIA Brisbane ain’t no ARIA Sydney. The Brisbane River may look pretty enough when the sun goes down but it definitely has nothing on the picturesque Sydney Harbour. That said, ARIA Brisbane works with what it’s got – and well too. Like the Sydney restaurant, the space is very elegant and refined yet there was that intrinsic Queensland casualness and charm injected to the package too.

As one would expect from dining at one of the country’s best restaurants (or at least the offshoot of one of Australia’s best), ARIA ain’t cheap. Entrees are in the mid-to-high $30 price range while mains are $50ish. And although I was ready to go entrée and main, I manage to let the girls twist my arm by doing the four-course chef’s tasting menu ($125 per head) with them. Even though the lady on the phone said that the ARIA won’t be able to serve the entire menu within two hours, the waiter assured that he would try his best to do so without rushing us. And so it began.

Squid ink and prawn cracker with chickpea puree and chorizo crisp
Squid ink and prawn cracker with chickpea puree and chorizo crisp

Our amuse bouche was a single squid ink and prawn cracker topped with chickpea puree and two pieces of sliced chorizo crisp. The cracker tasted like an Indonesian prawn cracker (we’re talking those massive crackers made from REAL prawns, not those pink Asian food court pretenders loaded with MSG) but with a lovely earthy kick.

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Free-flowingly warm bread and butter, yew.

I should also mention here that the three of us received a complimentary champagne cocktail, similar to a Kir Royale. Mad props.

Cascina Ghercina Blagheur 2009 Nebbiolo ($25)
Cascina Ghercina Blagheur 2009 Nebbiolo ($25)

ARIA offers a nice selection of wines from all over the world in addition to local wines featuring the usual suspects like Clare Valley Rieslings and Yarra Valley Pinot Noirs. And as a nod to Queensland’s growing wine industry, they even had a Chardonnay from the Granite Belt. To this day, I remain sceptical about Queensland wines so I opted for a Nebbiolo instead.

Scorched king salmon with celery, radish, puffed rice and yuzukosho
Scorched king salmon with celery, radish, puffed rice and yuzukosho

Our first course was the beautifully cooked king salmon. Cooked confit-style before being scorched for a slight crisp, the buttery fish felt and tasted sublime while the yuzukosho added a bit of citrusy tang and the faintest of spice. The celery, radish and puffed rice were all very subtle, allowing the flavour of the salmon to shine through while still providing the dish with a bit of textural contrast.

Twice cooked sweet pork belly with bacon and mustard relish, nashi pear and palm hearts
Twice cooked sweet pork belly with bacon and mustard relish, nashi pear and palm hearts

The pork belly, unfortunately, was a teeny bit dry (and um, small?). Not sandpaper dry (that would have sucked), but definitely not as soft and juicy as I would expect from an establishment like that. That said, the skin was perfectly crispy and overall, the it was a well-balanced dish in terms of flavours.

Smoked wagyu beef brisket with beetroot and horseradish, jus gras
Smoked wagyu beef brisket with beetroot and horseradish, jus gras

Thankfully, the brisket was much better than the pork. The meat was beautifully tender and smoky (gotta love hickory, hey) and the jus packed with flavour. I also loved that the beetroot and horseradish both gave the rich dish a much-welcomed level of acidity. It was the perfect pairing for my slightly smoky and acidic, and not to mention very aromatic, Nebbiolo.

Blueberry poached pineapple, coconut sorbet and toasted meringue
Blueberry poached pineapple, coconut sorbet and toasted meringue

Our final course was the very retro-inspired dessert that just screamed out ‘QUEENSLAND, BITCHES!’ To a Melburnian like myself, it embodied my adopted state to a tee: simple, no fuss, vibrant, fruity and in some parts, stuck in the 80s (I mean c’mon, pfft meringues). However, it was one of the best desserts I’ve had in quite some time – I loved that it was unpretentious, I loved how fresh the fruits were and I loved how everything just blended together so effortlessly like silicone boobs in Surfers Paradise.

Petit fours: sesame snaps, Turkish delights and mini passionfruit slices
Petit fours: sesame snaps, Turkish delights and mini passionfruit slices

Our tasting menu included coffee, tea and petit fours to which we all said yes. At this stage, we were still way under our allocated two hours and we were almost done. This surprised me because I never felt rushed at all during our meal – it was very well-paced, well-executed and service remained friendly and attentive throughout. Kudos, ARIA Briabane.

But anyway, I ordered a sencha tea that was sweet to the taste with a clean finish – perfect with the petit fours we sampled. As predicted, everything on display tasted great but my favourite had to be the passionfruit slices – so tangy, so bold and so flavoursome.

White chocolate and raspberry macarons
White chocolate and raspberry macarons

Our evening wrapped up just before the two-hour mark with boxes of delectable white chocolate and raspberry macarons to take home, which I enjoyed for morning tea the next day. A lovely touch to what had been a fantastic meal.

People have criticised ARIA Brisbane for being mediocre and expensive for what they offer. Indeed, my friend Raphael once called it an ‘overpriced French bistro.’ True, it’s not cheap and true, it is no ARIA Sydney (and this is where people go wrong, I reckon – because they compare it to the original restaurant) nor does it pretend to be. And while the food isn’t exactly ground breaking (we can’t all be avant-garde Surry Hills chefs cooking sous vide walrus moustaches after all), the dishes are meant to be of high quality yet comforting and accessible. And the service? Oh man, the service. It was some of the best I’ve experienced for a long time – the waiters were attentive, helpful and friendly. Plus, little touches such as the complimentary champagne cocktail and take-home macarons really made a world of difference. I think if you judge ARIA Brisbane by its own merit, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you’ll uncover a dining experience that is polished, refined and honest with a good dose of warm Queensland charm, minus the fake silicone boobs.

Aria Brisbane on Urbanspoon

I eat too much.

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