Sunday, 20 April 2014

Champ Kitchen & Bar - dining on a public holiday

I'd been pretty concerned when I found out that one of the great open spaces at South Bank was going to be torn up and developed into the new ABC studios.  I love to see Brisbane develop, but I'd wondered at the logic of tearing up one of the nicest areas of the precincts for another building.  As it turned out, the development went ahead and the space was transformed into a pretty decent looking building that felt as if it's always belonged there.

In that new building was a lovely looking restaurant created by Justine Whelan of very popular Paddington cafe, Anouk, which is one of my favourite breakfast spots around town (see post here).  Champ Kitchen and Bar has been designed to be in perfect harmony with its surrounds in South Bank, with a very open and modern feel that lets the outside in. It's located right outside the Brisbane Wheel and the forecourt of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, which makes it a perfect location for a quick meal before a show or a lingering meal if you have the time.

It was the Easter long weekend and we'd been for a meandering walk over the Story Bridge, then along the Kangaroo Point cliffs and finally to Southbank, where we spotted that Champ Kitchen was actually open for the weekend.  We wandered into the dining area to check if the dining room would be open for dinner and decided to make a booking on the spot.  Unsure what else would be open for the public holiday, we thought that it would be better to be locked in for dinner early to avoid disappointment.

We'd been contemplating getting over to Champ Kitchen ever since it first opened a couple of years ago and, despite walking past the funky looking diner 100's of times, we'd never made the commitment before.  Once we arrived back at Champ for our 6:30 reservation, we could see that there were already quite a few tables taken and we were thankful that we'd made a reservation (although we probably could still have snaffled a table).  We were given a couple of menus which looked almost exactly like the online version that I'd been studying earlier, with a few exceptions.  As is normally the case when this happens, those exceptions were the options I was going to choose.  Curses, why do I keep doing that to myself?

The Champ Kitchen and Bar menu had a distinctly Middle Eastern feel to it, while maintaining a Modern Australian edge to it.  As with many menus at the moment, it was segmented into small plates for sharing as well as mains and desserts.  There were a couple of interesting looking items available and SC kicked off with the burnt aubergine croquettes with feta, oregano and a lemon yoghurt.  There were four large and golden croquettes that looked quite pretty on the plate covered with feta bits and micro herbs.  The croquettes were well cooked, with a wonderful crunch from the golden coating but I found them to be a little too subtle in flavour.  There was no really strong flavours and I'd never have guessed that they were burnt aubergines of not mentioned on the menu.

I really liked the sound of my starter of chorizo paella cakes with salt and pepper squid and a saffron aioli and they had the potential to be amazing, but unfortunately fell flat.  The salt and pepper squid was actually delicious, well cooked and had a wonderful peppery flavour, but the problem was with the chorizo paella.  It was stone cold and as a consequence it was really gluggy and not at all pleasant to eat.  I could see where they were going with the dish, if the paella was hot and fresh, the pieces would have worked nicely with the squid.  As the plate was taken away, our attentive waiter asked if the dish was OK.  Before commenting, I asked if the paella was supposed to be served cold and, with the confirmation that they should have been fresh and hot, advised he was sorry and immediately indicated that the dish would come off the bill.

We'd had a mixed bag for our starters so I was a little apprehensive about mains but didn't have long to wait to find out if our next course would be more successful than the starters.  SC's main of confit duck leg with orange jus, rosemary sweet potato mash and caramelised sugarloaf was presented only a few short minutes after our entrees were cleared from out table.  The duck looked nice on the plate in a rustic kind of way with some lovely deep colours offset by some bright green garnish.  Looking good is on thing and in this instance the visual appeal was backed up with some lovely flavours and exceptionally well cooked duck.  The flesh fell off the bone, which signified that it was perfectly cooked and worked with the classic orange sauce.  There was a nice sweetness that came with the caramelised sugarloaf and mash and while all of the components on the plate were sweet, SC thought that it all still worked.

I'd chosen the fish course for my main, which was advertised as crispy skinned snapper but as I ordered the fish, was advised that it would be barramundi.  I have a preference of snapper over barramundi, but also like barra, so it wasn't a big deal.  My barramundi came with miso fried mushrooms and pancetta along with a piece of caramelised lemon and was again a very rustic looking dish.  The barramundi was well cooked and was still nice and moist but unfortunately the skin as not crispy at all and I had to peel it off as I didn't like it's texture.  I found the dish to be just a little lacking in seasoning and therefore lacking a bit of punch.  I'm not sure if the saltiness was to come from the pancetta, but there was not enough of it to bring balance to the dish and the mushroom could definitely done with an extra pinch of salt and pepper.

The big changes from the online menu to the actual printed menu resided with the desserts, so there were less options to choose from.  This didn't impact SC, who'd decided to check out the sweet treats, which were bite sized dessert treats that you could order by the piece up to four pieces.  The little treats were presented on a wooden board dusted in icing sugar and looked quite lovely with each little bite standing ably on it's own.  The four treats were coconut strawberry, a choc caramel tart, a black forrest torte and a lemon curd tart, which was by far the best of the treats.

Recovering from my disappointment about the reduction in dessert options, I decided that I'd go for the marquise, a chocolate cream terrine with house churned vanilla ice cream and pomegranate.  I've had chocolate marquise a heap of times and it's normally a beautiful soft and velvety chocolate, just a little thicker than a traditional mousse.  The Champ Kitchen version was very different with a very thick and heavy chocolate that was so dense that it was hard to cut through and not very pleasant.  I'd also noticed that instead of pomegranate, which would have helped cut through the richness of the chocolate, the dish came with a pistachio crumble.  I'm not sure what happened there...

If I had to sum up our meal at Champ Kitchen, it would have to be one of missed and lost opportunities.  The menu sounded quite nice and there were elements that were, but on the whole I found all three dishes that I'd chosen to be on the below average side.  SC fared a little better than me with her choices and in fact, the duck dish was very good.  The biggest disappointment for me was my starter with the cold and gluggy paella, but to the credit of Champ, they removed the starter from our bill.

While the food didn't really measure up to my expectations, the service was really lovely and the personable wait staff that were on hand for the night definitely saved what could have been a terrible experience.  I understand that sometimes food just doesn't come out of the kitchen the way that the chef or the customer wants, this is just part of life.  What makes such nights salvageable is the service and way in which the wait staff react to feedback and comments, and in this case it was a big pass.

There was enough promise at Champ Kitchen and Bar to think about a return visit.  Most of the information I've read online and through other blogs is about the breakfast offering and perhaps that might be a better option to check out next time.


The starters were OK but at least Champ Kitchen responded well to my complaint
There is a very natural feel to Champ Kitchen and bar
Most of the tables are outside, which helps bring the outside in

Champ Kitchen + Bar on UrbanspoonChamp Kitchen & Bar

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