Barton’s Hotel Realm is familiar territory for many Canberra diners, but even the most frequent visitors to Buvette, its French bistro that closed earlier this year, will have trouble recognising its successor, Louis. Everything except the tiled floor has been replaced and its capacity has increased significantly, with the space now broken into multiple areas to keep it from becoming overwhelming.
A marble mosaic trompe l’oeil bar overlooks a table-service bar section with high tables and banquettes upholstered in tan leather; as you walk through to the restaurant the upholstery switches to midnight blue and burgundy.
Two moodily lit private dining rooms each have 10 seats set around Didier tables with large marble lazy Susans. Gilt-framed artworks sit on the French-wash walls overlooking drinks carts, from which servers pour digestifs at the table. Add in a sunroom and an all-season al fresco area, connected to neighbouring venue Ostani via a terracotta-tiled horseshoe bar, and the capacity climbs to 210.
It’s a far cry from Aubergine, the beloved (and now-closed) fine diner where then chef-owner Ben Willis did 40 covers four nights a week. And Louis’s clientele is also a lot more varied.
Hotel Realm’s location next door to the Press Club means it’s not unusual to see current and former politicians dining. “But you also get single diners, business people, families – it’s a very wide demographic, and we have to nail things for all of those groups”, Willis, who is now culinary director for Hotel Realm’s parent company Doma, tells Broadsheet. His solution has been to follow the same philosophy that has carried him since his days at London French institution Chez Bruce.
“What underpinned the food there was classic, well-made sauces and here we’ve stuck with that simple but classic European approach,” he says.
The result is an approachable à la carte menu that takes much of its inspiration from southern France.
“Canberra in the middle of winter is a hard time to launch a lighter, brighter version of French cuisine, but I wanted to head in a healthier direction because that’s increasingly the way people want to eat,” Willis says. “That means more olive oil than butter, more lemon juice and capers and olives and less cream.”
Provence is his starting point for a cross-border exploration that takes in the French and Italian rivieras through dishes like potato and leek pithivier (pie) with salsa verde, and barbajuan, a Monegasque staple of fried ravioli stuffed with a mixture of Swiss chard, onion, garlic and mushrooms.
And Willis has found some elegant workarounds that fit the brief but still play well in Canberra’s chillier months. His cannelloni are thick cylinders of spanner crab and Murray cod mousse wrapped in egg and saffron pasta, with half a dozen diamond shell clams providing a sharp textural contrast. But it’s the rich bourride – a mixture of fish and clam stock, lemon juice, and aioli that transcends its component parts – poured over the top that makes the dish sing.
“The eggs in the aioli thicken the sauce and give it that creamy texture without any dairy,” Willis says. The result is a winter-appropriate dish that’s rich without being cloying.
A 200-bottle wine list follows the menu’s lead and will evolve to focus on NSW and ACT drops alongside southern French options. As the weather warms up, diners can expect the dry rose selection to expand significantly alongside summer varietals like rolle (the Provencal term for vermentino).
The coming months will also see Willis getting stuck into his next project for Doma. He’s been busy devising a menu of “Spanish-style tapas” for Leyla, the seventh-storey rooftop bar at neighbouring Burbury Hotel.
Ground Floor/18 National Circuit, Barton
(02) 6163 1818
Thu & Fri 11.30am–3pm, 4.30pm–10pm