Where in Canberra can you find a meeting of literature, art and good food? Muse is a new venture located in the East Hotel, in the inner south of Canberra. My good friend Serina, who blogs at Ms Frugal Ears and has been published in the Canberra Times, kindly shared her lunch experience at this new and exciting space. If you're interested in finding out more about this new restaurant/bookstore, read on!
Muse Canberra - a meeting of literature, art and good food
Sometimes all roads lead to Canberra. So it was that I went to lunch at the newly opened Muse Canberra to find that I had an alumni connection with one owner and a friend in common with the other owner. And was also able to engage in a bit of banter in Mandarin.
Muse Canberra is founded by husband + husband team Paul Eldon and Dan Sanderson. They met while living in Beijing; both are long-term China residents. Neither is originally from Canberra, yet Canberra is where they have found their nest, bringing with them a concept hatched in China yet not at all Chinese in any conventional sense.
Muse Canberra is based loosely on a restaurant/bookstore chain in China popular with the expat scene called The Bookworm. Paul and Dan wanted to bring Bookworm to Australia, but when this fell through instead came up with their own unique interpretation. Getting to Muse was a process that took persistence: they originally planned to buy the Smith’s Alternative Bookstore, but settled on premises at the up market East Hotel in Kingston after the Smith’s deal did not eventuate. They also spent two years working in the hospitality industry to prepare them for the skills they would need in business.
Muse Canberra has two distinct identities, which are separate yet flow from one to the other.
Most patrons enter through the Muse bookstore, and in fact you might be mistaken from thinking that Muse is only ‘just’ a bookstore. In a climate where educated Canberra readers have fewer and fewer independently run bookstores that champion local and Australian authors, Muse is a welcome edition. Oops, that should be addition. Books on my brain.
“We are much smaller than most bookstores, stocking only around 2,000 titles,” explained Dan. But they are good titles, with a range that many inner-Canberra urbanites will want to wander in and buy, and then come back to buy some more. I was drawn to a Japanese bento boxes, and another on Japan style. The Monocle travel guides just made me want to pack up my suitcase and go somewhere exciting. Looking through my photos I noticed some cute children’s books that my boys would love.
The bookstore can also be a place for intimate dinners; Muse recently hosted a 50th birthday party in the bookstore space. Patrons can also buy a glass of wine and take it into the bookstore to wander and browse or sit and chat; or else they can bring a book into the restaurant.
Muse has an interesting line-up of Tuesday night literary appearances, starting with Bernard Keane, who will discuss his novel ‘Surveillance’ on 29 September. And due to the popularity of the program, Muse Canberra has added a few Sunday sessions starting with Charlotte Wood presenting her work “The Natural Way of Things” on 25 October. Tickets can be purchased at Muse Canberra. The $10 price includes a glass of wine or soft drink.
The Muse restaurant carries through the casual, open, creative vibe that the bookstore exudes. The restaurant is full of stories: ask Paul about the piano that graces the sunlight corner of the restaurant, ready for light jazz and other musical performances. Ask him about the trendy grey-cotton Asian influenced aprons that all staff wear. Or about the award-winning architect, who designed the space and hand made the tables. Even the carpet on the floor has a story.
Everything treasure in this space been designed or prepared with meticulous attention to detail and care.
But it doesn’t feel stuffy.
This is not a pretentious restaurant. “I want you to have a good time,” said Paul in explaining the vision of the restaurant. The food is fresh, colourful and bursting with flavour. The chef uses local suppliers where possible, including locally sourced cheese and honey harvested in Sutton by a friend of a friend. Many of the items of the menu are vegetarian, suitable for vegans and gluten-free – but it doesn’t feel like you are eating flavourless sawdust. I felt the flavour combinations were nicely balanced, filling without being oily and salty as some restaurant food can be. There is a strong emphasis on homemade: even the marmalade, tomato sauce (ketchup) and onion jam are all made on the premises.
The restaurant’s wine-list includes an interesting list of labels from small Australian wineries. Paul and Dan have personally visited each winery, and have selected these wines because they know they are good. They will also run wine appreciation events. Beers are not forgotten, either, with a collection of boutique beers from each state and Territory (except for the Northern Territory, but that is not for want of trying to source something.)
I was unsure whether or order the Ras El Hanout marinated prawns with charred lemon cheeks, or perhaps even the sausage rolls made from slow-roasted lamb shoulder. But in the end, after a bit of deliberation, I chose the buckwheat vegetable lasagna. “It is one of our most popular choices,” encouraged Paul. And after choosing it I could see why.
Vegetable lasagna was one of my mother’s home cooking triumphs. I have tried often to rediscover something as good at restaurants, and to even recreate at home, but until Muse Canberra it has been mission failure. Too often they are bulked out with cheap ingredients such as big hunks of pumpkin. But not here. I think I can confidently say that this lasagna is even better than my mother’s home cooking (sorry Mum – yours is still good, though). I so enjoyed the mindfulness of eating this, the delight of cutting through the layers, savouring the discovery of the different roasted vegetables. I didn’t want the experience to stop.
Our meal came with a selection of side dishes and salads. These were quite substantial just by themselves – and in fact one of their menu choices is a salad only option. Don’t expect some kind of bulked up eat-till-you-drop processed salad experience: the quality and taste combinations are very good, highlighting simple combinations using fresh ingredients.
Most of us at the table had a gentle fight over the potato galette – it was worth the battle, with each thin layer of diamond-sliced potato cooked just right. My favourite was the lemony tabbouleh with beans – I went back for third for this one.
I also enjoyed the pearl cous cous salad and was intrigued by the flavour combination in the blood orange and cabbage salad.
For dessert we had a selection. I was drawn to the cocoa meringues with vanilla ice-cream and bananas. The vanilla ice-cream was so good – slightly crisp with a gelato-like texture that melted nicely with the crunchy/chewy meringues. One of my friends gushed over the chai panna cotta with coffee sauce and almond praline; I am not a coffee fan, but the praline was reassuringly good. My second favourite, and it was a hard choice, was the flourless chocolate & orange cake, with chocolate ganache and brandy cream.
The menu at Muse Canberra changes frequently as it uses local and seasonal produce. Prices are not dirt cheap but reasonable for the quality of the meals on offer. The cost for lunches is $28 for a main meal with three salads and sides, $26 for a main with two salads and side, or $27 for a group meal with all salads and side and the same one main meal. If you would like to eat the salads and sides only, a choice of three is$20 and two is $16. Desserts are all $12.
Muse is open for breakfasts Monday to Friday, and brunch until 3.00pm on Saturdays and Sundays (Paul said the eggplant bacon is very good and a popular brunch choice, as are their waffles). They are open for dinner, and for special events by appointment. The food genre is modern Australian; I was a little sad they had not drawn on their China background in crafting the menu, but perhaps that will come.
Muse is situated in East Hotel, on Giles St (not far from the Kingo, but a very different crowd). Muse offers yearly memberships that provide discounts in the bookshop and invitations to members only events.
Serina writes about mindful frugal living, including affordable recipes of $5 and under. Check out her frugal cooking tips at Ms Frugal Ears.
She dined at Muse Canberra at the invitation of the owners. All views expressed are her own.
The Low-Down on Muse Canberra Eatery type: Restaurant and bookstore Address: East Hotel, 69 Canberra Ave, Kingston, ACT, 2602 Phone: 02 6178 0024 Open: Monday — Thursday 6.30am — 10pm Friday 6.30am — midnight Saturday 7am — midnight Sundays & Public Holidays 7am — 6pm
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