When considering fine dining in Brisbane, you’ve got your creative and slightly eccentric options – think Esquire and Urbane; but if you’re thinking much more traditional then it’s hard to ignore Aria Brisbane.
The Matt Moran restaurant was a welcome addition to the Brisbane fine dining scene when it opened up in August 2009. Introducing a level of refinement that was, to be frank, missing, Aria set the bar for ultra fine dining and complete refinement. But the impeccably dressed and trained wait staff, the exquisite food and prime riverfront location came at a premium; the introduction of Aria to the Brisbane scene introduced the concept of exorbitant Sydney style pricing.
Kind of acceptable when you have the meal of your life; not so much when it’s a little ‘meh’
Over the years, Aria has given me the exquisite end of the spectrum, but on more than a few occasions, has delivered over-priced mediocrity.
That said, when I was recently back in Brisbane for my flying visit, I did have Aria on my list of ‘must dine’ restaurant; mainly because the lunch time menu is exceedingly good value, and when it hits, it hits big.
I was hoping for that special Aria moment that you talk about for a while.
Arriving a while before my lunch date, I was seated at one of the prime window seats, which afforded me views of the Brisbane River and Story Bridge; sights that I’d not really seen so much of over the last few years. I was given the menu to look over and well and truly had my meal planned out before SG arrived for our lunch.
One of the reasons why I’d selected Aria, beyond it’s two hats, slew of awards and generally amazing food, was their vegetarian options; you see, SG is a vego and I wanted to be accommodating (it can happen!!). So once SG had caught up with the options and placed her order, we set about catching up while our meals were prepared.
Crunchy bread was offered, along with slabs of salted butter that I lathered on nice and thick; it was appreciated as my gnawing hunger had started to take over. Flat petrified wood plates were also delivered with an amuse bouche, the chickpea puree with dried seaweed sitting atop a tuile that was almost translucent disappearing as quickly as it was presented. Never a fan of chickpea, the little bite was actually quite good, some saltiness from the seaweed matching the creamy puree and the tuile adding crunch.
The first of what has to be said were some beautiful looking dishes arrived shortly after our amuse bouche. The goat’s curd with pear, soy beans, radish and candied walnuts was stunning to behold, the ingredients were so carefully arranged on the plate. The creamy goat’s curd had a subtle texture, not quite smooth and was quite delicate on the palate. Texture from the candied walnut provided a little crunch and thin slices of radish provided a slight bite of heat. As far as vegetarian dishes go, it was simple and wonderful; Aria had started with a bang.
My starter was also pretty as a picture, the care and attention to plating was clear to see, even right down to the speckled grey plate that allowed the ingredients to pop. Expertly seared scallops shared the plate with salt baked celeriac, wood ear mushrooms and a delightful miso butter. The caramelisation on the three large scallops added to the natural sweetness of the plate and the earthiness of the celeriac partnered perfectly; extra earthiness came from the mushrooms… But the absolute star of the dish was the miso butter, which not only brought the dish together, but was mouth wateringly yummy!
Looking a little like fancy beans on toast was SG’s pearl barely and butternut squash risotto. The creamy risotto was sitting on some baked squash and was topped by toasted barley and thin slices of mushroom. I didn’t taste this dish, for a couple of reasons; firstly, it was vegetarian! but mostly because I’m not a fan of butternut squash… However, SG waxed lyrical about the flavours and (unusually) was totally quiet while she concentrated on devouring her main.
That was OK by me, I was equally enamoured by my pan fried Cobia which was presented with textures of asparagus and a brown butter purée that was almost too good to believe. I love the strong flavours of Cobia, which in this instance was cooked perfectly and with crispy skin that was salty and delicious. Each of the ingredients were again placed with precision, resulting in a plate of food that was eye catching, as well as being beautiful to eat.
The good times kept rolling when our desserts arrived. SG had gone with the strawberry with shortbread, black pepper sprinkled over a custardy creamy puree and a vanilla bean ice cream. Looking almost whimsical in its presentation, the dessert was a refreshing blend of sweetness and sharpness, the strawberry being the star of the dish, but ably supported by the shortbread (which had been crumbled).
I only had eyes for the sticky date soufflé, served with a caramel custard. I’ve always thought that Aria produced the best soufflés in Brisbane and once the perfectly formed and expertly risen dessert was delivered, I fell in love. With a rise that was almost as high as the copper pot it was presented in, you could just tell it was going to be great. A whole was cut in the top by our waiter, who proceeded to pour some of the custard. I tell you, this was insanely good, the texture was light and airy, the sticky date flavour coming through and the custard cream elevating the dish to super star status.
What was more amazing was the fact that SG had never tried a soufflé in her life, so I was duty bound to enforce a bit of a sample. One taste and SG started to seriously ponder her life choices that had led to that moment; how had she not tried a soufflé before?? Well, it was clear that she’d never make that mistake again.
To be fair though, the soufflé was a wonder to behold, so it was a great introduction.
While everyone knows that Aria is the creation of Matt Moran, the man responsible for delivering the goods from the kitchen was Ben Russell. Initially working through Europe in some of the finest Michelin Starred restaurants, Ben had been with the Aria group for just over a decade, initially in the Sydney Aria before being part of the launch team of the Brisbane outlet in 2009.
I’d been really happy to have stopped back into Aria, it was definitely one of the best meals I’d had in the restaurant in all the years of visiting the place. It wasn’t just the food either, the service was on point, professional and friendly; one of those services where we hardly noticed that our glasses were constantly filled and the food flowed effortlessly.
While I’ve had reservations about the pricing of Aria, in particular on those nights that things don’t go so well, it’s irrefutable that lunch at Aria is an uplifting experience. The price point is so reasonable, and the food so good, you’d almost be excused for going weekly!